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Minnesota Basketball Preseason Roundtable

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We’ve assembled our Gopher basketball experts to get their forecasts for the season ahead

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Minnesota David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

What do I know about basketball? Beyond the basics? I’d rather not say. And when it comes to the topic of Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s basketball, I’ll defer to my more knowledgeable colleagues. And to be honest, as a casual fan uncertain of what expectations I should have for the coming season of Gopher basketball, I’m as interested to hear from them as you are.

Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey, and Dupree McBrayer are gone. How do you replace their production? Or better yet, can the Gophers replace their production?

mowe0018: The simple answers to these questions are, “I don’t know,” and, “Probably not.” However, because of the sheer quantity of turnover in the roster’s composition coming into the 2019-20 season, trying to definitively answer these kinds of questions is a fool’s errand. Luckily, I’m pretty foolish, especially when it comes to espousing off opinions on the internet.

No one player on this year’s roster is going to slide in and be a pound-for-pound replacement for Murphy or Coffey. Those guys were great (and in Murphy’s case all-time great) Gophers who brought a lot to the table scoring-wise, rebounding wise in the case of Murphy, and play-making wise in the case of Coffey. However, this year’s team has a lot of length and athleticism in the back court. There will be plenty of candidates to mirror the stats that Dupree McBrayer posted on a night-to-night basis. Additionally, this team now has a true point guard in Marcus Carr. That could go a long way in improving offensive production by having a true facilitator of the offense, as there were times last season when the team would get into scoring funks and Coffey would have to will his way to carrying the offensive burden.

Overall, I think that having the scoring responsibility more spread out among 6-7 players may benefit the offense. And the guards, while young, all seem to be willing defenders with a lot of length and athleticism. I think the team is undergoing a big of a transition towards being a more perimeter-oriented team but it’s also really hard to tell with so much roster turnover.

Ustreet: The same way that the A’s replaced Giambi: by committee. Jordan Murphy should have his number retired (though with how long they waited to give it to Willie Burton, don’t expect it any time in the near future), but his offensive game forced Minnesota to be an inside out team. This team will almost certainly be the opposite. The Gophers will have more shooters on the floor this year in every expected lineup, and the replacement for Murphy will have to come from behind the three-point line. Coffey is similar, though I am skeptical that any two-player combination can make up Coffey’s production when he was on fire.

Defensive rebounding is a major question mark for the upcoming season, which is where Murphy’s graduation will be felt most heavily. Daniel Oturu and [INSERT POWER FORWARD HERE] will have to step up.

GopherNation: No, they cannot replace that production and leadership. Instead this team is going to shift and be very different. Over the last few years, this team was really good at drawing fouls by finding penetration lanes and getting to the free throw line. Coffey and McBrayer were very good at this while Murphy was so strong inside that he accomplished the same goal on put-backs and post-ups. We were a more traditional Big Ten team that rebounded and played with toughness.

But we all know this team really sucked at shooting (and making) threes. This team is going to stretch the floor, run a lot of high pick and roll and is going to be very good at defending the perimeter. The actual production of those three will be spread out over 5 or 6 guys.

Oh and the leadership vacuum, the guy in charge on the floor... that’ll be Marcus Carr. I have very high expectations for him.

zipsofakron: Short answer: you can’t replace that type of production, 1:1. These are three professional-level talents. This team was created around those two players, which means the only way forward is to amend/alter/change your identity. That’s exactly what Pitino is doing, though, evolving from a big, physical team to one that is oriented around shooting. Can you remember the last time a Minnesota team was focused on shooting?

That said, “replacing” that production will come in the form of reformatting the team. Daniel Oturu will need to become exceptionally more efficient. Gabe Kalscheur will need to be much more consistent. Marcus Carr will need to be a scoring, passing point guard (hey, we have one now!). They’ll need to get a ton of production from guys we have only heard about, like Alihan Demir and Payton Willis. That’s a lot of question marks.

Entering the season, who do you consider to be the most valuable player on the Gophers’ roster?

mowe0018: When taking into consideration the newest injury to Eric Curry, I believe that Daniel Oturu is probably the most important/valuable Gopher because without him, there is literally no one to rebound the ball with any kind of authority throughout the rest of the roster. While fellow sophomore Jarvis Omersa brings energy and athleticism to the court, seeing him consistently rebound on both sides of the floor seems unlikely, at least for this season.

Considering the Gophers play in the rugged Big Ten, where teams are huge and the play is extremely physical, getting dominated on the boards is a surefire way to get whooped throughout the conference schedule. Oturu asserting himself as a rebounding machine in the mold of Jordan Murphy and being the anchor on the defensive side of the ball patrolling the paint quickly become absolute necessities if this team is going to have any moderate success in the Big Ten. The sophomore leap is extremely important for the big man out of Cretin-Durham Hall, with perhaps the most essential evolution being his ability to stay out of foul trouble. The front court depth gets very thin after Oturu, so he has to be able to consistently log 30+ minutes for this team to be competitive.

Ustreet: mowe0018 is right that Oturu is the most valuable player, and I am very high on his ability to have an All-Big Ten First Team season this year, but the most important player is Marcus Carr.

Minnesota desperately needs consistent point guard production this season. Coffey’s role as a point forward was not as successful as I had hoped, and the Gophers only had one consistent three-point shooter throughout the year. This year, Minnesota keeps Gabe Kalscheur, but now adds a potentially deadly sniper at the point guard position. If Marcus Carr performs well, Minnesota will overperform expectations. If he doesn’t, then there will be a lot of scrambling.

GopherNation: I think Marcus Carr is the most important player on the roster. I could totally see the case for Oturu. If he goes down, we have nothing in the frontcourt. But Marcus Carr is going to be the heart and soul of this team.

Carr will be a high scorer, a high distributor, facilitator, and leader. The offense will run through him and he’s going to be incredibly valuable defensively. I really think this team is going to live and die by the high pick and roll, relying on Carr’s decision-making and savviness. He is absolutely key.

zipsofakron: The real answer is Daniel Oturu but I’m going with Gabe Kalscheur. The Gophers are going to be a “shooting team” this year and there’s no better shooter on the squad, currently, than Kalscheur. He was snubbed for the Big Ten All-Freshman team despite averaging 10 points per game, but he also disappeared from far too many games in the scoring column, managing double-digit scoring efforts in just two of his final eight games. Not to mention he’s the team’s best on-ball defender.

Replacing Coffey and Murphy will be no small trick, but the Gophers will need Kalscheur to improve his consistency if they want to be competitive because there aren’t a ton of scorers to rely on yet. We also need him to reduce the number of fouls he’s picking up. He does no good on the bench and he exited a ton of games early last year due to foul trouble.

In terms of depth, who will be Richard Pitino’s most valuable player off the bench?

mowe0018: The interesting aspect in regards to this question is that we may not have a good grasp on who starts for this team until the tip of the first game (or quite possibly several games into the season). While it appears that Pitino is set to start Payton Willis at the three spot and Alihan Demir at the four, I’ll be curious to see how that settles out once the real games start in early November.

In any case, I think the most valuable player off the bench will be Tre Williams. This is mostly by default as the other bench contributors don’t appear to be players who will have high net positive contributions. The likes of Jarvis Omersa, Michael Hurt, and Sam Freeman seem to be players who will just try to stem the tide while the starters are getting rest. But, there is the off-hand possibility that Isaiah Ihnen makes a very quick jump from raw and extremely talented to extremely effective in a short amount of time. If this very unlikely scenario plays out in his freshman season, Ihnen then might become the de facto most “valuable” bench player.

Ustreet: Tre Williams in terms of player who I think will come in and add points. Jarvis Omersa in terms of handling the physicality of the Big Ten season. Omersa will get a lot of run at both the four and the five this season.

GopherNation: I agree with Ustreet that it will be Tre Williams. I love the three person core of Carr/Oturu/Kalscheur as a trio of players who can be All-Big Ten caliber and lead this team to more wins than expected. But this team really needs one or two other guys to step up. I think Tre Williams is the most likely guy. He’ll come off the bench and provide a scoring spark along with consistent defense. He will play a lot of minutes and as he matures throughout the season (knock on wood). He is going to become a major contributor.

zipsofakron: I think we’re going to be pleasantly surprised by B.J. Greenlee, who is backing up Carr at point guard. He was a super late signee, but all reports are that he’s a fundamentally sound, defensive-minded, hard-nosed dude who will spell Carr effectively.

Which newcomer — of which there are several — will make the biggest impact on the court this season?

mowe0018: I will be a slight contrarian and venture to guess Willis. With so many new faces, its hard to know how the roster is going to fall and who will be the best fits along Minnesota’s already established talent, but I’m going to say that Payton will use his SEC experience to his advantage and come out gunning from three-point land from Day 1. Another consistent and threatening shooter from the outside to complement Kalscheur would be a boon for a team that is looking to shoot the three-ball with more volume and increased consistency than in years past.

Ustreet: Tre Williams will be the most consistent player of the freshman. Marcus Carr if you mean all players who will suit up for the first time in a Minnesota jersey this season. The backcourt recruits — transfers included — are going to be better to start the season.

One note of homer optimism: if Isaiah Ihnen figures out the game ahead of schedule, watch out.

GopherNation: Has it been very clear that I’m really high an Carr? He will make the biggest impact, without a doubt. But success this year really depends on the level of impact from Willis and Demir and the freshmen too. It is going to be a collective effort this year from the new guys.

zipsofakron: I’m already all in on Payton Willis and the season hasn’t even started. I think he has the potential to lead this team in scoring. He was an afterthought when he transferred from Vanderbilt but the way he has been attacking in the preseason leads me to believe that Pitino may have picked up someone special.

How do you feel this team stacks up against the rest of the Big Ten? Where do you expect to find them in the standings?

mowe0018: The conference schedule does the Gophers no favors this season. Additionally, the huge amount of roster turnover removes the helpful concept of continuity that is so valuable in college basketball. While I am slightly more optimistic than the professional prognosticators, it would require some cataclysmic shift in the conference for Minnesota to finish above 8th or so. Maybe Ihnen becomes the next Giannis and another newcomer or two steps up, but the schedule is such a bear that seeing anything above 10 conference wins is essentially impossible.

Ustreet: Minnesota replaces too many pieces this season to be realistically considered a preseason top four team. The schedule is not ideal either, which means that a .500 season in conference play should be a realistic upper bound.

GopherNation: As this team is predicted to finish around 11th or 12th in the Big Ten, I think they’ll be better than that. But they will be below .500 in the league. Can they be one of the mid-level Big Ten teams capable of knocking off anybody? Or will they just stay above a few really bad teams without really consistently competitive with anyone above them?

I am optimistic, I think they finish 8-12 in the league and around 8th or 9th in the standings.

zipsofakron: Though I’m ever the optimist, there are just too many question marks heading into the season to pick this team to finish in the upper half of the conference. Question marks do not equal confidence in college basketball. I think their 2020-21 season prospects are bright, but I don’t expect them to finish much higher than 9th or 10th in the conference this year. There are just too many teams who are going to have strong continuity from last season.

Richard Pitino was on the hot seat last season... until he wasn’t. How warm is his seat now, if at all? And what are your benchmarks for a successful season?

mowe0018: Hard to tell at this point. It is slightly disappointing to be in Year 7 of his tenure and the expectations are as low as the are (see previous question). But with all things considered, the team has made the NCAA Tournament two of the last three years and recruiting is going alright for the time being. I think it would help if the team shows noticeable improvement as the year progresses. If Coach can put together a Big Ten Tournament run that reflects the team getting better over time, that might encourage Mark Coyle and those around the program that Pitino is evolving as a coach and improving daily. For the time being, the seat seems a normal temperature.

Ustreet: Chilly. The only reason — barring some horrific scandal — that Pitino is gone after this season is if he leaves for a different job.

My benchmark for a successful season is making the NCAA Tournament, but everyone better learn to love the bubble lifestyle.

GopherNation: I think his seat is warmer than Ustreet does. I’ve never been all that clear on how Mark Coyle feels about Pitino. Finishing 6-14 in the Big Ten and just not really showing many signs of getting better, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Coyle make a move to get a guy that he really wants (see the PJ Fleck hiring process). Most likely he is here next year, but I wouldn’t be shocked to be going through a coaching search next spring.

My benchmark is that this is going to be a bubble team. Maybe that’s more of a prediction than my benchmark. But the last few times this team has made the NCAA Tournament, they were actually above the bubble. This coming March, I think the Gophers will be solidly on the bubble. Fingers crossed they do well in the non-conference and make their way in.

zipsofakron: Let’s be honest. This whole season has a different flavor if Amir Coffey is still here. Because Pitino can’t change Coffey’s decision, I don’t sense that this program is ready to make a coaching change in the immediate future. It feels like we just went through that, even though that was several years ago, and Pitino is showing enough upward momentum both with performance and recruiting for anyone to really be serious about making a change. If he gets an offer he can’t refuse elsewhere, then that might change things, but Pitino being fired is not on my radar right now. If he can remain in the bubble conversation all season with this squad and bring in one of Jalen Suggs or Dawson Garcia then I’ll be satisfied.