So we’re really going to try this out are we? The 2020-21 season begins on Wednesday against Green Bay, and from there the Gophers embark on what will be a very tense, fraught season where we’ll wonder if and when random games will get canceled, who will see the floor each night and who we’ll even be playing.
But let’s pretend for just a second that the season plays out according to the schedule. We know a couple things: Richard Pitino brings back a pretty nice complement of players, including an all-conference PG in Marcus Carr, and he made good on three impact transfers in Brandon Johnson, Liam Robbins and Both Gach, each of whom should command significant playing time.
We also know that while the nonconference schedule isn’t very notable, the conference schedule is very difficult to open up, with their first seven (!) games against ranked teams. So we’ll know fairly early on what this team is capable of.
While my Twitter avatar may be an unhappy Goldy face, I’m surprisingly optimistic most of the time. This year, now that the Gophers connected on each of their wish list transfers, I actually think they’re being a tad underrated, which is a good place to be. In fact, I’m thinking of them as a tournament team to begin with, and am hoping they don’t play themselves out of that position as the season wears on. The Big Ten is a good conference again this year, so wins will be at a premium, but they are now also a veteran squad, with a lot of miles on their starters, in a good way.
That said, aside from the obvious “how many points will Marcus Carr score?” there are a few things I’m looking for this year, which should impact the outcome of the season:
What will we get out of Gabe Kalscheur?
If you thought Gabe just looked out of sorts last year it wasn’t just you. While he scored more points per game compared to his freshman season he shot at a lower percentage both from the field and from three-point range. Turnovers increased and his free throw percentage dipped as well. It was a sophomore slump for one of the team’s key players, punctuated by a brutal stretch in January when he went five straight games in single-digit scoring. And let’s not forget an 0-10 performance from the field against Iowa early in the year.
However, he was still one of the premier deep threats in the conference. He led the Big Ten in made three-pointers, and was seventh in the conference in three-point percentage. So, while he “dipped” it was all relative. His highs were high — he scored 34 points against Oklahoma State and tied the school record for made three pointers in a game — so we know the talent is still there.
Now a junior and a captain on the team, another year of growth would do wonders for the Gophers. Imagine Kalscheur adding 13-15 points per game alongside Marcus Carr in the backcourt. That’s hardly out of the question.
But he needs to smooth out the peaks and valleys. A stable nightly output from Kalscheur is much-needed for a team who will rely on veterans like himself to carry the load. He will need to be locked in from behind the arc with fewer 1-8 nights and more 5-10 nights.
How good will Liam Robbins be?
Gopher fans should have jumped for joy when it was reported that Robbins was granted a waiver to transfer and play immediately. With the loss of Daniel Oturu to the draft the front court was going to look MIGHT-y thin without a big man alongside Johnson. Instead, Minnesota adds a veteran center to the starting lineup with the Drake transfer. Robbins was second-team all-Missouri Valley last year, averaging 14 ppg, 7 rpg and nearly 3 blocks per game. Those are great numbers, Walter.
The question? How will Robbins’ game stack up in the Big Ten? He didn’t play against a ton of top-tier teams last year, so making comps is a bit difficult. Against Cincinnati he had 12 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks in 25 minutes, but scored 12 points while only grabbing 1 rebound in a half against Dayton. Still, he was fifth in the nation in blocked shots and it’s not like the MVC is a terrible conference. He was also named to the MVC All-Defensive team. Another comp? Reggie Lynch transferred from Illinois State, an MVC school, and did just fine adjusting to Big Ten play.
The Gophers need Robbins to be a 75% version of Daniel Oturu to blunt some of the pain of losing him. Can you replace an NBA draft pick? Not easily. But the Gophers will go far if Robbins can be a key asset down low on any given night and stay out of foul trouble.
How will the Gophers perform in February?
It’s a tale as old as time. Minnesota does fairly well for most of the season, and when the calendars turns to February, *toilet flushing sound*. I mean, it’s bad you guys. Look at past seasons. It’s easier to count the years when the Gophers DIDN’T suck in February. There’s been one in the past 10 years — 2017, and where they miraculously went undefeated in February. And I stopped counting past 2010, so it might actually be worse.
February is a key month in college basketball since you’re really trying to put a tidy bow on the conference season and look good in the eyes of the Selection Committee, especially when you’re a perennial bubble team like Minnesota and that type of thing matters. And in a conference like the Big Ten there are no games off, meaning that to perform well in any given month you need to beat some pretty good teams if you want to stay above .500.
Last year the Gophers did a fantastic job of playing themselves out of the tournament conversation by going 2-4 in February en route to falling into their annual late-season swoon by losing eight of their final 11 games. Ish.
Again, the Big Ten is a bear again this season, and four of Minnesota’s six February games come against teams currently in the top 26 of KenPom. Given the frontloaded conference schedule, my assumption is that they will have to make hay in the season’s final weeks to stay afloat, something they very rarely do.