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High-flying Gophers should be in the national conversation all year

After crushing Western Carolina and Alabama A&M at home, the Gophers are off to a dominant 5-0 start, winning every game this season by double digits. The talented Gophers have scored seemingly at will, dominated the interior, and showed off their high-level athleticism in beating Providence and four mediocre teams.

The schedule now gets significantly harder. Minnesota will play four of its next six games away from home against strong competition, including ranked opponents Alabama and Miami. We’ll learn a lot over the next two and a half weeks, but for now, let’s take a look at what the first five games have revealed about the No. 14 Gophers.

The offense appears vastly improved

Last week’s column touched on Minnesota’s need to improve its offensive efficiency. Despite last season’s success, they weren’t a particularly strong offensive team, ranking 77th nationally in offensive efficiency. They didn’t shoot the 3 well, and played at a relatively low tempo (98th last year in adjusted tempo) that didn’t reflect Richard Pitino’s desire to push the pace.

So far this season, it’s a different story. The Gophers rank 11th nationally in points per game (95.4), and are shooting slightly better behind the arc (36.4% vs. 34.5%) compared to last season. Their overall field goal percentage (52.5%) ranks 24th in the country. In terms of nontraditional metrics, they rank 15th in the nation in offensive efficiency, and are playing at a higher tempo, averaging 73.2 possessions/40 minutes, about a 4-possession improvement from last year. Simply put, they’re a much better offensive basketball team.

Now, there is one huge caveat to all of this: Strength of schedule. Yes, they put up 86 points at Providence. But they’ve scored in the 90s and 100s against mostly bad teams. Here’s a look at their point totals against each of their five opponents, and where that opponent sits in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings:

Opponent Points scored Pomeroy ranking (out of 351)
USC Upstate 92 280
Providence 86 29
Niagara 107 189
Western Carolina 92 275
Alabama A&M 100 350

Providence aside, the Gophers have beaten up on some of the worst teams in the country. Nevertheless, the Gophers scored more than 90 points only once in nonconference play last season, against a number of similarly ranked teams. We’ll get a better idea of how good the offense really is shortly, but it’s safe to say they’ve taken a significant step forward.

Isaiah Washington seems to have some Ricky Rubio in his game

I’m venturing into hot take territory here, and I’m not at all confident in making conclusions about a freshman after five collegiate games. The supremely talented Washington can, and probably will, make this comparison look silly over his career. After five games, though, here’s what we know:

1) His ball handling is strong enough that Pitino feels comfortable playing him at the point even when Nate Mason is in the game.

2) He can run the break and find players in transition—often in narrow windows and difficult angles–perhaps better than anyone on the team.

3) His shooting percentage is low. Through five games, he’s shooting 31.6% from the floor, 11.8% from 3, and 58.8% from the line.

4) Despite his low shooting percentage, he’s looking for his shot a lot, ranking second on the team in shots/minute at .395, behind only Jordan Murphy.

Right now, Washington’s contributing offensively through pushing the pace and his passing ability, but his volume shooting and ineffectiveness from the field is a liability. His shooting percentage will likely improve, and we’re dealing with a tiny sample size. Whether he’s able to find his shot consistently, though, is something to monitor throughout the season.

Jordan Murphy is playing like one of the best players in the country

Murphy’s recorded a double-double in all five games he’s played, and is averaging 23.8 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game. He’s shooting 65.7% from the field, and 70.5% from the line, and leads the team in minutes played. His efforts earned him back-to-back Big Ten Player of the Week honors. He’s been an absolute beast.

Pitino has given Murphy the nickname “Low-motor Murph” in the past, because of his tendency to sometimes drift through games. Murphy joked after Tuesday’s win that he’s happy to have shed that nickname. Again, the competition hasn’t been strong overall, so Murphy will have to prove he can put up consistent double-doubles against stronger opponents before we start talking about him as a legitimate All-America candidate. (Though he put up 23 and 14 at Providence and dominated the Friars in the second half.) What is clear is that Murphy is playing determined, high-energy basketball, and no frontcourt — yet — has been able to contain him. There’s obviously a long way to go, but if he can produce at this high a level all season, he’s going to start appearing on NBA draft boards.

Pitino is still workshopping his rotation

Washington is getting consistent minutes off the bench. After that, though, Pitino’s mixed and matched based on matchups and effectiveness, with no bench player other than Washington playing more than 14 minutes a game. Davonte Fitzgerald had his best game of the season Tuesday, with 13 points and 8 rebounds in 19 minutes, after struggling in his first few games after sitting out the last two seasons. Michael Hurt’s played well in limited minutes, scoring a bit and distributing the ball well offensively. Jamir Harris is 7-for-13 from three, but it’s still unclear how much Pitino is going to use him against high-caliber teams, given his DNP-CD against Providence. Bakary Konate has more fouls (7) than points (6) this season.

Fitzgerald and Hurt, in my view, are the key to the second unit being effective against good teams. Reggie Lynch — who leads the country in blocks at 5.2/game, by the way — hasn’t yet fouled out of a game, but it’s probably inevitable that Fitzgerald and Hurt are going to have to play extended stretches in some big games this season. If they can give Pitino solid minutes, it’ll go a long way to the Gophers being able to tread water while Lynch is on the bench. If not, the loss of Eric Curry is going to hang over the team all season.

The ceiling is very high

I’d put the Gophers’ starting five up against any team in the Big Ten. Murphy is a legitimate conference player of the year candidate, Mason may be the best point guard in the Big Ten, and Lynch and Amir Coffey are all-conference players and NBA prospects. Dupree McBrayer is a solid 2-guard who can score in the half-court and on the break. If the starting five stays healthy and on the floor, a deep tournament run is very much on the table.

Over the next two and half weeks, the Gophers face UMass (neutral), No. 25 Alabama (neutral), No. 11 Miami (home), Rutgers (home), Nebraska (road) and Arkansas (road). A 5-1 or 6-0 run through those opponents should put the Gophers in the top 10 and firmly into the national conversation, where they figure to stay all year.

  • Topgunn

    Very excited to see how the Gophers do in this next stretch. Disappointed a number of the games, (starting with U-Mass) won’t be on TV.

  • fritzdahmus

    When depth in the front court is needed during games…..I’m looking for Michael Hurt to come on and play smart BB and grab some rebounds. At this point, I just don’t see it coming from anywhere else. Hopefully that improves…it should.

    When Lynch and/or Murphy are out, the guards need to take over anyway. Hell, play 4 guards and a forward in those cases (the forward being Lynch or Murphy). Backcourt of Mason, McBrayer, Coffey, and Washington.

    Depth is the Achilles heel of this team.

  • Dougie Wilde

    Be interesting when they, finally, have to play a very good team.





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