Minnesota’s overtime victory over Penn State on Monday certainly wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was a relatively important one for the Gophers. Yes, Penn State is a mediocre team whose ceiling is probably an NIT berth. For Minnesota, though, it was the first time anything positive happened since the onset of the new reality in which they now find themselves.
After defeating Illinois on January 3, the Gophers went through a terrible 10-day stretch on and off the floor. A day after the Reggie Lynch news broke on January 5, they announced star guard Amir Coffey was out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. His return remains possible, but not certain. On the floor, Minnesota lost a close game at the Barn to a depleted Indiana team, before getting blown out by Northwestern and Purdue. The 34-point loss to No. 3 Purdue, a legitimate final four contender, was expected. The Northwestern loss, though, was surely tough for Gophers fans to stomach, because they seemed to show very little fight against a mediocre Wildcats team.
When they began a week-long east coast road trip against Penn State, Maryland, and Ohio State at Madison Square Garden, it was reasonable to wonder whether the Gophers would return home in a continued tailspin and extended losing streak. In getting the overtime win at Penn State, they at least allowed themselves a moment to breathe, as they try to salvage something out of a season that’s gone quickly, and spectacularly, off the rails.
Minnesota has little choice but to come to terms with their situation and try to piece together the next month and a half. As they move forward, here are five questions to pay attention to through the rest of Big Ten play.
1. Will Isaiah Washington improve? (And will he see the floor?)
In my view, the biggest storyline from the Penn State game wasn’t the win, it was Washington’s lack of playing time. Washington played just two minutes all game, picking up a foul and committing a turnover before being pulled by Richard Pitino. Now that an NCAA berth is unlikely, Washington’s development would seem to be one of the biggest priorities for Pitino, which is why it was so telling that he barely saw the floor.
There’s no question Washington’s struggled in his first year of college ball. He’s last on the team in effective field goal percentage, but is shooting at a higher volume than any of his teammates. He’s shown flashes of brilliance, and at other times played out of control. If he’s to take over as Minnesota’s starting point guard next season, he’ll need to demonstrate, through the remainder of this year, that he’s capable of running the offense effectively. At this stage, Pitino is still trying to win this season, and the Penn State game suggests he doesn’t feel Washington gives them the best opportunity to do that. If Minnesota continues to fade, though, giving him extended minutes would seem to be a smart strategy, as Pitino tries to gather as much data as possible in evaluating the talented but inconsistent freshman.
2. Can Jamir Harris be the spark the offense needed?
Washington’s replacement in the Penn State game, Jamir Harris, had a breakout performance Monday. In his first start, Harris had 16 points and 5 rebounds in 36 minutes, while not committing a turnover. Included in that performance was a spectacular stretch in overtime, in which he scored 10 points in a three-minute stretch to seal the win.
Harris has been a bit of a forgotten man for Minnesota this season. His freshman counterpart, Washington, has received significantly more attention, and until Monday, played heavier minutes. Harris didn’t see the court in four of the Gophers’ first sixteen games, and played less than ten minutes in six others. Harris’ minutes have steadily risen in January, though, and he’s produced reasonably well.
Touted as a strong 3-point shooter out of high school, he’s hit over 40% of his threes on the season through play Monday. That’s particularly valuable for a Gophers team that struggled both last season and this season behind the arc, with only Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer hitting consistently from three. (Amir Coffey was shooting a solid 37% from deep this season before the injury.) Harris is an undersized guard, and doesn’t have the on-ball defensive prowess of Washington. Offensively, though, he’s a promising player, and the opportunity to play extended minutes through the rest of this year should help him moving forward.
3. Can Jordan Murphy continue his dominance?
It’s too bad Jordan Murphy’s spectacular season has been a bit overshadowed by the team’s off-the-court issues, because he’s putting together one of the best years in recent program history. A double-double machine, Murphy’s put up big numbers with remarkable consistency, despite playing on a short-handed team. With Minnesota down two starters, opposing teams can make him the focal point of their defensive strategy. Murphy, I’d venture to guess, sees as many double-teams as any big man in the conference, with teams willing to leave players like Michael Hurt and Davonte Fitzgerald open to help contain him. Even when Minnesota was at full strength, their lack of 3-point shooting allowed teams to double him consistently.
Still, Murphy performs. He ranks second in the nation in rebounding (first among Power 5 conference schools) and first in double-doubles. It’s worth noting this isn’t the first time he’s played through significant program adversity. In his freshman season, he suffered through a 2-16 Big Ten season that saw three key players get suspended after a sex tape was posted on social media. Murphy, meanwhile, has never missed a game or gotten in trouble, soldiering on through turmoil and disappointment to be a rock for Minnesota’s program.
4. Will Amir Coffey return?
There is one plausible path, in my view, for the Gophers to still make the tourney. If Amir Coffey is able to successfully rehab his shoulder injury and return sometime in February, it’s not totally inconceivable he could help lead a late charge for Minnesota. Any such resurgence would surely involve making a significant run in the Big Ten tournament.
Now, I’m not saying that’s particularly likely, but it’s also not impossible. Coffey, somewhat quietly, was having a really good year before he went down. In 16 games, he was averaging 14.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists, while making life difficult for opposing ball-handlers with his length and athleticism. Coffey’s presence is a game-changer, particularly for a team so short on depth. If they can get him back for the final month they’d be a different team, with enough talent to begin to resemble the squad that embarrassed mid-majors at the Barn and beat Providence and Alabama at the beginning of the year.
5. How will Richard Pitino handle late game situations?
An oft-debated situation arose in the Penn State game late in regulation. With ten seconds on the clock, Penn State had the ball down three. Pitino elected not to foul and send them to the line, taking his chances that they’d miss a game-tying three. Instead, Tony Carr—a 46% 3-point shooter this season—calmly took the ball down the floor and drilled a three with three seconds left, sending the game to overtime.
I was very surprised Pitino different foul, and thought it was the wrong decision, especially once the clock went under five seconds. I thought it was a particularly glaring error because Carr, an excellent 3-point shooter, was allowed to take a relatively open three.
Pitino’s played this both ways in the past. Way back in 2014, in the NIT championship game against SMU, Pitino did foul up three. SMU made one of two, and Minnesota was able to run out the clock. Last season against Michigan, Pitino elected not to foul up three, and Michigan’s D.J. Wilson hit a long shot to force overtime. The Gophers eventually prevailed.
Noted college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, among others, has studied this issue. Somewhat surprisingly, at least in my mind, he didn’t find a significant advantage in implementing one strategy over the other, so perhaps criticizing coaches who don’t foul in this situation is unfair. Personally, I’d have taken my chances sending Carr to the line.