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Minnesota Basketball: A Lackluster Season from the Team’s Upperclassmen

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While Coach Pitino has taken a lot of heat, some of the Gophers’ veteran players have let them down.

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

There will be much discussion about the job Coach Richard Pitino has done over the last six years at the University of Minnesota. There will be plenty of digital ink spilled on the subject. And while it would appear his failures have been numerous and the results less-than-stellar, this particular piece of internet content will not be focusing on the coach of the team. While he is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the program over its long term duration, he doesn’t put the ball in the basket or defend the opposing team’s best player. That is the job of the player.

At a program like Minnesota, where 5-star players merely give a polite acknowledgement and an inclusion of Minnesota on their “final eight” list, true and sustained success can only be obtained if player development occurs and there are strong contributions from players who have been with the program multiple years. In short, upperclassmen need to lead the way. The story of the 2018-2019 season is that a majority of the upperclassmen expected to lead this team through high quality of play have failed to do so. I am specifically referring to guards Dupree McBrayer and Amir Coffey.

****I understand that there are unique circumstances as it relates to McBrayer. I have no doubt this season has included some of the most trying times of his life. This critique is solely focused on his on-court production. I acknowledge that, as human beings, said on-court production can be drastically effected by the world outside the lines of a basketball court. My intention is not to say he shouldn’t be allowed to grieve or that his play has been unacceptable, it is simply pointing out what short-comings have contributed to a team’s basketball season that has not gone the way we had hoped.****

Personally, I believe senior forward Jordan Murphy is blameless as it pertains to this season and the recent February swoon. Murphy will go down as the most prodigious rebounder (by sheer volume) in program history. The young man is 6’ 6”. This, to me at least, represents the tenacity, hustle, and constant motor that Murphy has exemplified in his time at the U. Statistically speaking for the 2018-2019 season, Murphy is 7th in the entire nation in defensive rebounding percentage. He is 11th in the nation in free throw rate (1st in the conference in conference games only). He plays nearly 77% of all minutes despite often being in foul trouble. On top of all of this, he has never missed a game due to injury or disciplinary reasons for his entire four year career. Besides developing a more consistent jumper from the elbow, there’s not much more we could have asked for from Jordan Murphy during his Gopher career. The fact that he will have endured two of the most atrociously offensive Minnesota basketball seasons in program history and very likely will have only played in one NCAA Tournament game is an affront to his hustle and the overall statistical significance of his career. I do not include him in the group of upperclassmen who have fallen short.

So first, let us address McBrayer, a senior shooting guard who has seen his shot disappear in his final year of eligibility. Dupree’s season has been a consistent disappointment. His shooting percentages at all levels have fallen across the board when compared to his sophomore year despite similar usage rates. His turnover rate (15.4 in 2019, 13.2 in 2018) has actually regressed when compared to his junior year. Widely regarded as the team’s best returning shooter, McBrayer has maintained a 29.6% accuracy rate from 3-point range this season compared to 41.6% his sophomore year and 34.3% his junior year. Defensively, McBrayer has held his own but there hasn’t been a particularly large improvement in any statistic. While defense is much harder to quantify but from what we can gather, there hasn’t been discernible improvement in that department either. I have no inside intelligence into the locker room and I am not about to be an amateur psychologist so I can’t accurately comment on Dupree’s ability as a captain but due to the direction of the team during the crucial stretch of the season, one can only assume that he hasn’t excelled in this area either.

The next upperclassman to address will be a tricky one. Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed Amir Coffey’s time at the University of Minnesota. He is a great player who has contributed a great deal and has been an excellent example of how to conduct oneself off the court. He has undoubtedly had some great games this year. He seemingly beat Nebraska by himself way back in December with a stellar 32 point effort and was a huge asset to the Gophers’ best win of the season in Madison. However, Coffey is also the most talented member of the roster and in his junior year. The expectations, therefore, are much greater. Despite some gems this season, Amir has more often then not laid an egg, especially down the stretch. His efficient field goal (46.3 from 53.3) and true shooting percentages (51.8 from 56.6) are way down from his first two years. While it is expected that these may drop due to higher usage (23.5 this year from 19.2 his freshman year) , this sizable discrepancy is too much. In the month of February (7 games), essentially make or break time for teams around the bubble, Amir has shot 35.9% from the field (28 of 78) including 26.9% (7-26) from 3-point territory. Additionally, he has shot only 63.6% (14-22) from the free throw line. One final telling statistic during the month of February is his assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.57. Take out the Indiana game outlier and it’s 1.15. This isn’t terrible but you need more from your best player if you are going to succeed in the Big Ten than these numbers.

While not nearly as important as McBrayer and Coffey, the lack of contributions during the latter part of the season from bench members Brock Stull (senior), Matz Stockman (senior), and Michael Hurt (junior) only further strengthen the point that the 2018-2019 Gophers have gone sideways primarily due to the uneven contributions of its most senior members. In an interesting microcosm of the the month of February, freshmen Gabe Kalscheur and Daniel Oturu combined for 64% of the team’s scoring against Rutgers on Sunday evening. While this is exciting in regards to the future, it doesn’t bode well for the present. In order for this team to reach its sizable potential, its upperclassmen need to contribute more positively than they have been throughout the year’s shortest month.

So as the month of February mercifully comes to a close and the Gophers hurdle towards the wrong side of the bubble and a date with the NIT, the only way this season can be rescued from the the brink is for the most senior members of the team to play better. I don’t mean to discredit these guys because they have been good players for Minnesota for several years. But that’s what makes it all the more frustrating. We know that these guys are talented. They were major contributors to a team that went 11-7 in the Big Ten just two years ago. While many will point their fingers at Coach Pitino for a lack of development, eventually you have to hold players accountable for their performance as well. Call me crazy, but I still think this team can make the NCAA Tournament. But that’s only possible if the upperclassmen start acting their age.