Listen, let me preface this article by saying that it is completely within the realm of possibility that Minnesota does not have a very good men’s basketball season in 2019-2020. Record-wise, due to a bear of a Big Ten schedule and a very tough non-conference slate, Minnesota is likely to underwhelm many of the maroon and gold faithful especially after making the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season and being in Coach Richard Pitino’s seventh year with the program. However, it is also perfectly reasonable to believe that this team could improve throughout the year and still be a relatively competent and competitive squad, despite it’s 1-3 start the likes of which this program hasn’t seen since the 1987-1988 season over 30 years ago. I’m going to outline a few reasons why Gopher fans shouldn’t be mashing the panic button on the season just yet.
First, it’s probably important to note that four of the team’s top six players in percentage of minutes played (per KenPom) are new to the rotation year. While two redshirted last year and practiced with the team throughout the 2018-2019 season (guards Marcus Carr and Payton Willis), there is still a lot of on-court chemistry to work out between the major contributors. The two best players are returning second-year starters in Gabe Kalscheur and Daniel Oturu, but there is something to be said about an in-game learning curve when you are playing with guys you haven’t played with before. Because Alihan Demir is a graduate transfer, he had very little time to acclimate to the team and has been thrown into a role that is perhaps too large for his skill set. In conjunction with the incoming transfers, three other contributors are true freshman in Tre Williams, BJ Greenlee, and Isaiah Ihnen. While they haven’t garnered nearly as many minutes, them being new to high level college basketball and new teammates makes for a lack of familiarity. And because basketball is such a cohesive, rhythm game, especially in the college game when continuity and a intimate familiarity with your teammates can outperform talent on a given night, I think the sheer amount of roster turnover has definitely influenced the team’s ability to finish off close games and has directly contributed to the sluggish start.
On top of the fact that the major rotation contributors are still getting used to each other, Minnesota started the season by playing four games in 11 days, with three of them being away from Williams Arena. I was at the game in Sioux Falls and while the crowd was heavily in favor of the Gophers from a pure numbers perspective, the venue was so small (approximately 3,000 capacity) that it truly did feel like a neutral site. This, in conjunction with a road game in the Eastern Time Zone at Hinkle Fieldhouse and then another immediately following in Mountain Time at elevation in Salt Lake City throws in a ton of variables that probably broke up the familiarity that athletes, especially young ones like a majority of this team, require to perform at a high level. The travel schedule, logistics, and surrounding circumstances for the beginning of this schedule were definitely unorthodox for a major college program. I’m not making excuses for the poor play but these are definitely factors that will not be present in a majority of games going forward. The Gophers don’t play another true away non-conference game and won’t be playing that many games in that many days the rest of the season. It is perfectly logical to believe that the scheduling quirks from the early season had some amount of impact on this young team and that those quirks will not exist in future games.
Which perfectly leads into another important point about this squad: this is a YOUNG team. Of players that have logged minutes this season, four are freshman, three are sophomores, one is a junior, and two are seniors (one of which played in the Colonial last year so not exactly battle tested). Guys are still learning their limitations in high level college basketball as well as learning the offense and getting comfortable with the speed of the game.
Another point to make that portends to better days to come for this team is that it’s not as if Minnesota was getting blown out of the water in these early games. Sure, the beginning of the Utah game was a hideous display of basketball but they also didn’t go into a shell and wave the white flag after digging themselves into a 19-3 hole. Minnesota cut the lead down to two points with 2:48 remaining in the game but just couldn’t get over the hump due to poor defensive play and bad free-throw shooting. Furthermore, the Gophers actually held second half leads against both Oklahoma and Butler. The lack of cohesion and youth of the squad has definitely revealed itself in the last ten minutes of games but that is something that I think will improve with experience and the players getting more comfortable with their roles.
Additionally, the Gophers have lost to quality teams. It’s not like they’ve lost to Evansville (139th in KenPom) on their home floor... They easily dispatched of Cleveland State like any talented team would do in the first game at Williams Arena. Then they played a Oklahoma squad that is a likely tournament team with a KenPom rating of 31 on a neutral court. Hardly a bad loss. The next game against Butler (21st in KenPom), was played at Hinkle where the Bulldogs haven’t a non-conference home game in 56 consecutive games. Lastly, Utah, while only 100th in KenPom, has two high level players in Timmy Allen and Both Gach and it’s notoriously difficult to adjust to elevation in a small period of time, especially as the third leg in a long road trip.
One thing that has been consistent in the first four games that I do not believe will last is the poor outside shooting and foul trouble of Gabe Kalscheur. Gabe shot 41.0% from three last season on a high volume (5.2 attempts per game). While he may be receiving more attention from opposing defenses this year with Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey no longer around to drag defenders away, Kalscheur has missed a lot of wide open looks that he canned with ease last year. He is currently at 32.3% from three for the season. A few three-point attempts that he has had in games were at key stretches of play and were not contested or forced looks by any stretch. If those shots start to fall, it completely changes the outlook of this team and the complexion of close games. It is well within reason to expect this percentage to improve.
One last thing that I will mention is that while depth appears to be a big concern for this team going forward, freshman Isaiah Ihnen missed the first three games of the season with a wrist injury which forced a shortened rotation and really hurt Minnesota at the power forward spot. This injury in conjunction with the tricky compressed road schedule really took a toll on effectiveness of the aforementioned Demir and senior Michael Hurt at the power forward spot. While Ihnen is a true freshman and by no means a banger, weighing in at only 190 pounds, he would have been a help to give breathers and different look for the Gopher offense for spurts of the games against Oklahoma and Butler. The lack of his presence was certainly felt and perhaps as the season goes on and he continues to develop his game, the overall effect on the team will be a noticeable improvement on the offensive end.
There were a lot of peculiar variables that went into Minnesota’s worst start since the 1987-1988 season. I know some might say that I am making excuses for poor performances and I am by no means saying that the points I made above make us an NCAA Tournament team. But what I am saying is that I don’t think its time to blow it up or talk about Coach Richard Pitino’s seat getting warm. The expectations for this team may need to be slightly amended.
The early entrance of Amir Coffey into the NBA draft really changed the outlook for the 2019-2020 team. It is an extremely young squad with very little experience playing together. While Oturu has been a revelation averaging 19.0 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks on 67.4% shooting, the team’s second best player in Kalscheur hasn’t even played what could be classified as a “good” game yet. Simultaneously, some of the new faces like Carr and Willis have shown spurts of quality play including some respectable defense. There is definitely reason to believe that this team can improve over time and rack up some wins against quality opponents especially considering they have competed well with tournament quality teams on two occasions.
So let’s hold off on blowing up the season. There’s a lot of talent on this team and despite a lack of depth and a weakness at the power forward position, there is still plenty of time for the team to mesh and become a tricky out for the numerous elite Big Ten teams this year. While we may have to readjust our expectations, that doesn’t mean that we have to declare this a lost cause before we’ve even played a second game at Williams Arena.