The Gophers men’s basketball team is entering the 2017-18 season in unfamiliar territory. For the first time in Richard Pitino’s tenure, Minnesota begins the year not as Big Ten bottom-feeders or a potential bubble team, but as legitimate contenders whose expectations can, and should, include competing for the Big Ten title and a making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
In his fifth season in the Twin Cities, Pitino’s rebuild appears near completion. Two years removed from a suspension-marred 8-23 season that led to calls for his firing, Pitino’s Gophers are ranked No. 14 in the country, already have a key road win under their belt, and have a foundation of current talent and incoming recruits that should keep them competitive for years to come.
Five of the top six players from last year’s NCAA Tournament team return this season, including All-Big Ten selections Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy, reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Reggie Lynch, and athletic swingman Amir Coffey. Complementing that core is a group of upperclassmen and newcomers who should provide the Gophers with significantly more depth than they had last season, particularly in the backcourt.
It’s not hyperbole to suggest this may be Minnesota’s best team since Clem Haskins’ ’97 Final Four squad. As the Gophers begin their quest for their first Big Ten title in 21 years, here’s a look at the players who should play a key role in shaping the season.
Nate Mason, PG
2016-17 stats: 15.2 ppg, 5.0 apg, 3.6 rpg, first-team All-Big Ten
Mason begins his final season in maroon and gold as the clear leader of the team. After trusting the process and staying in the program through two seasons of losing, he had a breakthrough campaign last year. Mason ranked in the top 10 in the conference in points, assists, steals and assist/turnover ratio, and became the first Gopher to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors since Vincent Grier in 2005.
Mason has the potential to be one of the Big Ten’s premiere players and a possible All-America candidate. To fulfill those expectations and be considered among the nation’s best guards, he’ll need to improve behind the arc, where he shot 36% last year. That’s a respectable number, but to put it in context, six Big Ten squads had a better team three-point percentage than Mason’s. The Gophers were not one of them—they ranked eleventh in the conference at 34.2%–and need Mason to improve from distance to become an upper-echelon offensive team. Minnesota ranked just 77 in the nation last year in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency—which measures points per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent–in large part because of their mediocre three-point shooting.
The senior also struggled a bit early in the conference season with late-game execution, and had perhaps his worst game of the year in their NCAA Tournament loss to Middle Tennessee State, scoring just 5 points while committing four turnovers. Those experiences, though, should help this season as he leads the Gophers through the grind of the Big Ten season and perhaps a lengthy postseason run.
Jordan Murphy, PF
2016-17 stats: 11.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.1 bpg, third team All-Big Ten
Murphy had a strong, but somewhat inconsistent, sophomore campaign, overcoming a mid-season slump to finish the year with seven double-doubles in his last ten conference games. That he still earned third-team All-Big Ten despite an up-and-down year shows just how high the ceiling is for the undersized, 6-foot-6 power forward. Already this season, he’s showing that he may be ready to take another step forward and become one of the conference’s elite players.
Through two games this season, the junior is averaging 29 points and 14.5 rebounds per game, including a very impressive performance where he completely took over the game on the road against a good Providence team. When Murphy’s at his best, he evokes memories of former Gophers star Trevor Mbakwe. Both big men make up for their lack of height with strong rebounding, solid defense, and high-energy, aggressive off-the-ball play. Murphy doesn’t need set plays to score; he gets a lot of his points by turning offensive rebounds into easy layups and ferocious dunks. His strength and physicality make him a difficult defensive matchup, and when he stays aggressive he can play with any post player in the country.
Murphy’s Achilles heel last season was his lack of consistency in playing the energetic brand of basketball he’s known for. During an 8-game stretch in the middle of conference play, he averaged just 6.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, and seemed lost at times on the floor. If he can avoid a similar stretch this year, he should be in line to average a double-double—a rarity in college hoops—and team with Reggie Lynch to form one of the top frontcourts in the conference.
Reggie Lynch, C
2016-17 stats: 8.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 3.5 bpg, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year
Lynch, at 6-foot-10, 265 pounds, is a true center. The Edina product was a menacing defensive presence for a Gophers team that allowed the lowest opponent field goal percentage in the conference last season. He easily led the Big Ten in blocks at 3.5/game, altered countless shots, and played strong pick-and-roll defense on his way to earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Lynch’s defensive dominance more than makes up for a relatively limited offensive repertoire, though he did show an ability at times last season to knock down 10-foot jumpers; a skill he surely worked on over the summer. Lynch has one huge flaw, however: Fouling. He fouled out of a whopping eight conference games last year, and saw his minutes significantly limited by being in constant foul trouble. Outside of the eight games in which he fouled out, he finished nine other games with four fouls, often picking them up early in the game and forcing him to sit for extended periods of time. He was just sixth on the team in minutes played not by design, but because he forced Pitino’s hand, sometimes with silly reach-ins and off-the-ball fouls. Through two games this season, he hasn’t yet gotten himself into serious foul trouble.
The Gophers already have an outstanding defense, ranking second in the Big Ten and 22 in the nation last year in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency, which assesses points allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent. For the Gophers to become a truly elite defensive team, though, he’ll need to figure out how to stay on the floor more consistently, and be available late in close games.
Amir Coffey, SG/SF:
2016-17 stats: 12.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.1 apg, Big Ten All-Freshman
An athletic 6-foot-8 swingman, Minnesota’s 2016 Mr. Basketball had a phenomenal freshman campaign. Coffey stepped into the starting lineup immediately and never looked back, finishing second on the team in points, assists, steals and minutes played.
Coffey has the length, basketball IQ and all-around game to be a special player, and he’s perhaps the Gophers’ best NBA prospect. He can shoot the three, attack off the dribble, and create havoc defensively and in transition. It’s hard to find a significant flaw in his game as he enters his second season, but Pitino has commented that at times he needs to be more assertive offensively. Coffey has the tools, and the genes—his father is former Gophers great and NBA player Richard Coffey—to become one of the best players in the conference, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see that happen as soon as this year.
Isaiah Washington, PG
2016-17 stats: N/A
Washington is one of the most highly-touted recruits to sign with Minnesota in the past decade. A four-star point guard out of New York City, he was New York’s Mr. Basketball in 2017. Known for his finger-roll finishes at the rim, Washington has the talent to be the next great Gophers’ point guard.
Based on the two exhibition games, he’ll likely start the season on the bench, behind Mason and SG Dupree McBrayer. It will be interesting, though, to see how much Pitino plays Washington and Mason together, and who will play off the ball. (Mason played a little bit of shooting guard his freshman year, when he split time with senior guards Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu.) Through the first two games this season, they’ve shared the court a fair amount, with Washington serving as the primary ball handler. If Washington lives up to his considerable hype and forces his way into the starting lineup—or at least into starters’ minutes–the two will share the court for much of the game. If it works and they both get their touches, they could form the top backcourt in the conference.
Dupree McBrayer, SG
2016-17 stats: 11.1 ppg, 2.7 apg, 2.0 rpg
McBrayer had a solid sophomore campaign, and is the Gophers’ top returning three-point shooter (41.6%). He should open the year as the starting shooting guard, and if he can continue to shoot above 40% behind the arc, he’ll likely stick in that role. If he struggles, though, his minutes could go down a bit this year as Pitino figures out his rotation in a very deep backcourt. In Monday’s win at Providence, McBrayer started the game, but came off the bench in the second half, with Washington replacing him. McBrayer played well after moving from the starting lineup to the bench midway through last season, so Pitino likely trusts the junior in either role.
Devonte Fitzgerald, PF:
2016-17 stats: N/A
After sitting out two straight seasons due to transfer rules and a torn ACL, the athletic, lengthy Fitzgerald is finally ready to see game action. His emergence is much-needed for the Gophers, who saw their front court take a hit after forward Eric Curry tore his ACL in August. Fitzgerald will be the first big off the bench for the Gophers, and could see significant action if Lynch again gets into consistent foul trouble. It’s been a struggle for Fitzgerald through two games this season. In 8 minutes of action against Providence, he picked up 4 personal fouls. It’s understandable he’s a bit rusty after two years off, of course, but Pitino needs him to be a rebounding presence off the bench.
Jamir Harris, PG/SG
2016-17 stats: N/A
Harris isn’t as heralded as his freshman counterpart, Washington, but he was a strong recruiting get for Pitino. Harris is seen as a very good 3-point shooter, and should help fill the void left when Akeem Springs graduated, though likely in limited minutes.
Other contributors: Bakary Konate, C; Michael Hurt, F