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The bench needs a boost: Michael Hurt’s ongoing acclimation could help

Last December almost to the day, University of Minnesota freshman Michael Hurt checked into the game against Georgia Southern in the second half with the Gopher men’s basketball team holding a comfortable lead. He got the chance in the corner for a 3-point shot and took it.

He missed three shots from behind the arc before finally sinking one. Each time, his teammates prepared to jump up in a state of pandemonium if he made the shot. The fourth time was the charm – resulting in that eruption of excitement from the Gophers bench. Hurt scored a career-high seven points in the 86-49 Gophers victory as they went to 9-1 and beat their previous win total from the year before.

It would be a great sign for the Gophers if we were to see that kind of excitement again when Hurt hits the floor — he’s playing more meaningful minutes in his sophomore season.

“From freshman year to this year, the game really is just kind of slowed down,” Hurt said. “Everything was kind of coming at me 100 miles per hour last year.”

Even with the adjustment to a slightly larger role as a forward, there’s still a learning curve to be mastered for Hurt, along with his counterparts on the bench. Hurt has a total of just three points in his past five games. Fourteen of his 24 points this season came in the first four games.

The Gophers have struggled as a team overall, too, falling out of the rankings this week and squeezing out an ugly 68-67 win at home over Drake (5-5) on Monday night. That was after losing two in a row on the road to Nebraska and Arkansas. Hurt was scoreless against Arkansas and Drake, missing a one-and-one free throw chance against Drake with 11.9 seconds left that was the start of a rough ending sequence to the game which included a Drake dunk, Gophers turnover and Drake 3-pointer at the buzzer.

“We just have to execute as a team better down the stretch,” Hurt said. “Me individually and as a team.”

Hurt isn’t the flashiest player on the team, but going forward he should be a key contributor off the bench. It’s still a work in progress for him and his teammates.

“Have to keep working,” said Coach Richard Pitino after the Drake win. “I think they’re inexperienced.”

After getting the close W over Drake, the Gophers have a 10-day break for final exams and face their next opponent, Oral Roberts, Dec. 21 in the second game of a six-game homestand. Pitino hopes it will be a good chance to put some practice time together, “because it’s been really hard to develop those guys right now.”

As much as some like to say this is the same Gophers team as the one that went to the NCAA Tournament last season, they have some key holes with Akeem Springs graduated and Eric Curry out for the season with an injury sustained over the summer. Then if you factor in any of the starting five (like Reggie Lynch) getting into foul trouble, the bench players become an even bigger factor. Hurt also acknowledges the “fairly inexperienced” bench, with two freshmen in Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris, plus Davonte Fitzgerald, who is back playing after two years following a knee injury. And again, Hurt didn’t play much last year as a freshman.

“We have to do a better job of jelling with the starters when we do come in,” Hurt said.

So maybe this game-break came at the perfect time?

“I think we definitely need it, just to obviously get the guys rested, but also we need to work out some kinks just offensively and defensively,” Hurt said. “And get back to where we were at the beginning of the season and kind of follow that plan that we had from last year which let us have so much success.”

At the start of the season, Hurt was thrown right into games with 10 and 13 minutes. His shooting was decent for the small sample size: 1-for-1 in field goals for the first two games, then 2-for-4 the next two. Pitino was also encouraged with Hurt after the first three games, saying he moved well from point A to point B and from a physical standpoint made winning plays.

“So I think just getting the experience has helped a lot defensively,” Hurt said earlier this season. “I would say just being a more consistent shooter out there where I can be and then moving without the ball is huge, especially when Nate’s [Mason] coming off the ball screen or Murph’s [Jordan Murphy] posting up, just finding ways to get my defender distracted so that they can go make a play. And if my guy goes to help then I can cut and… go get a bucket.”

Pitino had called him the best cutter on the team, adding that he moves well without the basketball. Instead of camping out in the corner waiting for a pass to shoot 3-pointers all the time, Hurt will back-cut. It’s a play Pitino watched Hurt complete in high school quite a bit.

Everybody thinks about Gophers sophomore guard and Hopkins native Amir Coffey when they think of the Minnesota local boy on the Gophers roster, and some seasoned Gophers fans probably mistake him for his father and former Gopher, Richard, as well. Hurt is a Minnesota boy, too. He was the leading scorer for Rochester John Marshall High School in 2015-16 and a finalist for Mr. Basketball, losing out to his now-teammate Coffey.

Looking at his stats, the sheet is not overwhelming, but Hurt’s still seeing more time on the floor than last season as a freshman. He’s played in every game this season, scoring a season-high five points in victories over Niagra and UMass. He’s seen double-digit minutes in 9-of-12 games, and his overall stat line is already improved over last season. He’s grabbed 19 rebounds (15 defensive), nine assists and five steals so far, all better than last year. It also shows he can contribute on the defensive side of the court, too, part of the recipe to success he’s kept in mind.

“I think it helps that we can outscore teams at times, but… we really try to have the same defensive mentality we had last year, which was defend, rebound and run,” Hurt said. “Just because that was our key to success for winning so many games last year.”

The offense will come along once his body catches up to the game, Pitino said in mid-November.

“He’ll get there,” Pitino said. “It’s the speed of the game sometimes. But once he gets acclimated with that, I don’t think that there’s any doubt that he’s a really good shooter.”


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