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Gophers notebook: As losses mount, is it time to prioritize development over winning?

Having now dropped seven of their past eight games, the Gophers find themselves in an unenviable, but clear, position. The season, for all intents and purposes, is over, at least in terms of competing for an NCAA berth.

With the Gophers down two starters, little depth on the bench, and Dupree McBrayer fighting through a painful leg injury, Minnesota is playing significantly shorthanded. Though they’ve generally been able to stay in games through the first 20 or 30 minutes, opponents have consistently pulled away late, as starters logging heavy minutes wear down in the second half.

McBrayer should be commended for playing hurt when the team desperately needed him, as should Amir Coffey, who came back ahead of schedule on January 20, only to tweak the same injury a few days later against Northwestern.

One wonders, though, whether it’s prudent for them to be playing 30 minutes a game, given their current state and the state of the team. Neither player is practicing fully with the team, and while their presence is needed for the Gophers to remain competitive, the season appears to be so far gone now that it makes little sense to continue to push them as hard as they’ve been pushed.

Whether injured players should play in lost seasons is a difficult decision in college basketball. In the NBA, a star player with similar injuries and a big contract would likely be shut down, with preference given to rehab and a clean bill of health. For college players, though, who have just four precious seasons to make their mark and attract the attention of professional teams at home and abroad, missing half a season is substantial. It’s easy to understand why someone like McBrayer, who has the potential to make good money in Europe, or Coffey, an NBA prospect, would want to gut it out, both for themselves and the team. It’s also easy to understand Richard Pitino’s motivation for trying to push them as he watches his once promising season slip away.

Now, though, the competitive portion of the season is surely gone. To make the tournament, the Gophers would need to essentially win out in the regular season or win the Big Ten tournament. The former would include beating the likes of (3) Purdue, (5) Michigan State, and (24) Michigan. The latter would require, at minimum, winning four games in four days at Madison Square Garden. Both of those scenarios seem so unlikely that pushing major parts of the future to play hurt no longer seems logical.

Minnesota should have a strong team next season. With McBrayer, Coffey, Jordan Murphy, Eric Curry and Isaiah Washington back, and four-star recruit Daniel Oturu coming in, there’s reason to be optimistic about the future. (We’ll explore that more later this season.) The smart play for the rest of this year, in my view, is to be cautious with injured veterans and prioritize developing talented freshmen. And that starts, of course, with Isaiah Washington.

Washington plays well in return to rotation

Isaiah Washington had the best game of his college career Tuesday against Iowa. In 25 minutes off the bench, he scored 15 points and added seven assists, while committing just one turnover. He still wasn’t particularly efficient, scoring 15 points on 15 shots and going 0-for-5 from three, but it was a positive sign for the point guard after playing 20 minutes total in his previous four contests.

Pitino relegating Washington to the bench for a few games made sense. He was taking a huge number of low-percentage shots, and converting very few of them. In the five games before his minutes were slashed, he went 11-for-50 (22%). That’s just not an acceptable percentage, and Pitino was surely looking to send a message by reducing his minutes. Whether the message was actually received or he just happened to have a good game in his return to the rotation is unclear, but what is clear is the need for him to play a lot over the season’s final month.

The most obvious reason Washington needs to see the floor is his development. He’s slated to take over as Minnesota’s floor general next season, after his mentor, Nate Mason, graduates. There’s no substitute for game reps, and with just seven remaining (plus the Big Ten tournament), it’s now or never as far as his freshman season goes. The second reason, though, is the risk of a transfer. I have no inside information on whether Washington is happy at Minnesota, but on a general level, players often transfer due to lack of playing time. If Pitino is still invested in Washington—and based on how heavily he recruited him and his reported preference for Washington over McKinley Wright, one would think he is—keeping Washington engaged makes practical sense. For both those reasons, I’d be pretty surprised if he doesn’t play 20+ minutes per game moving forward.

The same goes for Washington’s freshman backcourt counterpart, Jamir Harris. Harris has averaged 21 minutes per game over his last seven games, averaging 5.3 points over that stretch. Harris still struggles defensively, in my view, and doesn’t add much in terms of rebounding (1.1 rpg) or passing (0.9 apg), but he is an adept 3-point shooter. Harris is shooting 38% behind the arc, and for a team that’s near the bottom of the Big Ten in 3-point percentage, that’s a much-needed skill. Like Washington, getting Harris on the court as much as possible will serve him well as he looks to be an offensive weapon off the bench next season.

Jordan Murphy keeps going

As the season crumbles around him, Jordan Murphy just keeps producing. Without Reggie Lynch, Murphy’s been forced to deal with more double-teams and carry a heavier load defensively. The loss of Coffey—a 3-point threat—only adds to the ability of teams to sag down on Murphy when he gets touches in the low post. Despite those hurdles, his numbers haven’t dropped off at all.

After putting up 21 and 17 against Iowa, Murphy’s averaging 17.7 points and 11.9 rebounds per game. He leads the nation in double-doubles with 20, and is fourth in the country in rebounds. For the analytically-inclined, he ranks in the top ten in the conference in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and win shares.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Murphy, though, is his perseverance. In two of his three years in the program, Murphy’s endured disastrous seasons marred by suspensions, injuries, and a lot of losing. His freshman year, five key players missed significant time for the aforementioned reasons, as the team went 8-23. By the end of the season, he was Minnesota’s only legitimate offensive weapon, shouldering a huge load for a freshman. This season, he’s seen Minnesota plummet from a top-15 team to one that’s struggled to just get five healthy players on the court. Murphy, though, has never missed a game in his career, bringing energy and production no matter the state of the roster. Assuming he returns for his final season, he’ll do so as the clear face of the program.


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