Year two of the Lindsay Whalen coaching experience begins Tuesday afternoon for the Minnesota Golden Gophers as they host the Missouri State Bears at the Barn in the season opener. The Gophers come into the season ranked #23 in the preseason AP poll. They are ranked in the preseason for the first time since the fall of 2005. Expectations are high for this group ,but can they sustain it, or will we be looking at another frustrating close to the season as we were a year ago.
Last season the Gophers got off to an incredible start in Whalen’s first year behind the bench. Minnesota started the season with a perfect 11-0 non-conference record and then added a Big Ten opening win over Wisconsin to stretch the winning streak to 12 straight to start the season. The unfortunately reality set with four straight conference losses including the first of what would be a trend of blown fourth quarter leads against Illinois. Minnesota would start the Big Ten season with a 2-7 record before going on another tear winning six in a row including a home upset of a ranked Rutgers team. Minnesota nearly made it seven in a row at a top ten Maryland team next, but once again blew a fourth quarter lead to end the game. That game seemed to spiral the Gophers chances of making the NCAA Tournament, and a first round Big Ten Tournament loss to Indiana put the final nail in the coffin. Minnesota would win their first NIT game over Northern Iowa, but would fall in the second round at Cincinnati.
Minnesota graduated four players from that team a year ago, including three who saw regular playing time in Annalese Lamke, Irene Garrido Perez and Kenisha Bell. All three will be missed in one form or another, but it’s Bell’s 19.1 points per game that will be the toughest to replace.
So how do they do it? Whalen and the Gophers hope that it will come from a combination of returners, new blood, and they return of a key player from two seasons ago coming off of an injury that took away her 2018-19 season.
The most important player on the Gophers roster will be Junior guard Destiny Pitts. The Freshman of the Year in the Big Ten two years ago she added First Team All-Big Ten honors last season. She was named preseason All-Big Ten this fall as well. Pitts averaged 16.3 points per game last season, and is one of the best three point and free throw shooters in the conference. When Pitts is on, she is really on as an eight game streak of scoring 20 or more points last season showed. But when she is off her game, she can struggle to find a groove and force shots lending her to some ugly shooting percentages on 3 of 16 type nights. But the Gopher offense will revolve around her once again. She will be the catalyst to getting this offense moving. Pitts was also named to the preseason watch list for the 2020 Ann Meyers Drysdale Award given to the best shooting guard in the country.
Another key returner fro a year ago will be Taiye Bello. The senior forward exploded a season ago especially on the boards. She set the Minnesota single-season record with 152 offensive rebounds, and ranked fourth in team single-season history and tied for seventh in Big Ten history with 380 total rebounds. Bello was a double-double machine for the Gophers recording one in eleven games last season. She needs just 19 offensive rebounds to overtake Janel McCarville for the most offensive rebounds in team history. She also received preseason accolades being named to the preseason watch list for the 2020 Katrina McClain Award, which is given to the country’s top power forward
Senior guard Jasmine Brunson will also be expected to play another large roll. Brunson played the point guard spot for much of the year for Minnesota last season and averaged 8.4 points per game. Brunson is a lock down defender and will be tasked with bringing a spark to the Gopher defense.
Other returners for Minnesota this season who are expected to step into larger roles include senior forward Kehinde Bello. The other Bello twin mostly saw mop up duty last year but has worked on her game this summer and with a team that lacks size will be expected to play some forward minutes replacing Lamke this season.
Sophomore guard Mercedes Staples will most likely step into a starting roll this season for Whalen. Staples took a bit of time to adapt to college basketball but set a career high with 14 points in the NIT win over Northern Iowa. She missed some time with an ankle injury but is one of the best three point shooting threats on this team after Pitts.
Redshirt freshman forward Barbora Tomancova also returns after playing just six games a year ago due to a foot injury.
Minnesota will look to get a key returner back from injury this season. Redshirt Junior Gadiva Hubbard missed the entire 20128-19 season due to a foot injury she suffered in October of 2018. When healthy she had shown she can be one of the best scorers on this team and a great ball handler. She started in all but one game her sophomore season and was a scoring machine. She averaged 13.6 points per game and was a huge threat from deep ranking eighth in Minnesota history with 198 3-pointers attempted on the season and 10th with 69 3-pointers made. She scored in double figures in 22 of her 32 games. If you are looking to fill the scoring void left by Kenisha Bell, Hubbard should be your answer.
Whalen added to the roster with five freshmen, and two transfers this season. One transfer, five-start recruit Kadi Sissoko from Syracuse will need to sit out the season and will not play.
The other transfer Masha Adashachyk comes to the U from Panola Junior College where she averaged 12.7 points per per game and shot 38% from behind the arc.
The five freshmen will step in and play varied roles on this team. If its anything like last year Whalen will most likely keep a fairly short bench, so many of these players may not see a ton of action and may even redshirt.
Jasmine Powell is a point guard from Detroit. She knows this team well as she was a high school teammate of Destiny Pitts. In fact she took over Pitts role on her high school team by helping them to back-to-back state championships in 2017 and 2018. She averaged 18.4 points, 8.0 assists and 5.7 rebounds as a senior and was a four-star recuit and ranked the 78th player overall in the class, as well as the 23rd-ranked point guard, according to ESPN.
Sara Scalia is a guard/forward from Stillwater. She was named the Pioneer Press East Metro Girls Basketball Player of the Year as a senior after recording 22.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.6 steals per contest while shooting 45.5 percent from the field, 41.5 percent from 3-point range and 86.8 percent on free throws and helped Stillwater to the State Championship. Scalia is a three-star recruit and the No. 56 guard in the country according to ESPN.
Justice Ross is a forward from Des Moines. She was a two-time first-team all-conference honoree and averaged 15.7 points, 4.6 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.6 steals per game in her senior season. Ross was a three-star recruit and the No. 33 wing player in the country, according to ESPN.
Klarke Sconiers is a 6’2 center from Queens, NY. She was named first-team all-state as a senior as she helped lead her team to a state title by averaging 11.7 pts. and 12.2 rebounds per game. Sconiers was a three-star recruit and the No. 18 post player, according to ESPN.
Grace Cumming is a 6’3 forward from Des Moines, but a different high school than Ross. She was named first-team all-conference as a a senior after leading her team with 11.3 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per contest. Cumming was a three-star recruit according to ESPN and the 42nd ranked post player in the country.
How will they look?
Minnesota will look to beat teams with its speed and shooting. They will play small this season with Bello starting at center and what really could be described as a four guard offense with Pitts, Staples, Hubbard and Brunson starting. Powell will most likely be one of the first players off the bench and will be the backup point guard. In the post, the Gophers are very very thin. Expect Kehinde Bello to be the main backup to her sister, but after that...well its definitely an open question mark. Minnesota will need to try and figure out a way to defend against taller teams \when effectively Pitts will be playing the traditional power forward spot. Expect Whalen will play a relatively short bench so Pitts, Hubbard, Brunson, and Taiye Bello all will most likely get 35+ minutes per game of action.
The Gophers were picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten by the conference media, but were left outside the top five by the conference coaches. A lot may come down to if this team can play composed with leads late in games and not have a repeat of last season where they blew fourth quarter leads in six Big Ten games.
Minnesota will play four teams in the non-conference portion of the season that made the NCAA Tournament last season. Three of the four games will be at home beginning with Tuesday’s opener against Missouri State. They also will face Arizona State and UC Davis at home. Meanwhile the biggest non-conference game of the season will be on the road when Minnesota heads to South Bend to face NCAA runner-up Notre Dame in the Big Ten/ ACC Challenge.
Seven of Minnesota’s games are currently scheduled to be broadcast on national TV this season (8 if you include the ACC network broadcast of the Notre Dame game). These games are Jan. 4 at Nebraska, at Illinois on Jan. 12, at Indiana on Jan. 27, versus Michigan on Feb. 10 and at Michigan State on Feb. 17 all on BTN and Feb. 2 vs. Rutgers and March 1 against Maryland on ESPN 2.
Minnesota will raise a banner this season as the team honors Whalen’s former teammate in Janel McCarville. She will be the seventh player in program history to be honored in the rafters of Williams Arena when her banner is raised in a ceremony prior to the Gophers’ 1:00 p.m. game against UC Davis on Dec. 15.
Minnesota gets everything started with a 3PM tip on Tuesday against Missouri State. The game will stream on BTN + ($$) and will be broadcast on 96.7 FM and I Heart Radio.