Golden Gophers ‘Love Being Underdogs’
Expectations among national media aren’t that optimistic for the Golden Gophers basketball team that plays a home exhibition game tomorrow night against Minnesota Duluth and then opens the nonconference schedule November 6 with a Williams Arena matchup versus Omaha.
Injuries and the suspension of senior center Reggie Lynch wrecked a potential top 20 ranked finish last winter. After a promising start, Minnesota ended 15-17 overall, 4-14 in Big Ten regular season games. The lingering disappointment of last season is apparently enough to darken the view by national media about the 2019 Gophers, with some predictors seeing a mediocre record ahead and no NCAA Tournament invitation.
Redshirt sophomore center Eric Curry countered that view. “We love being underdogs,” he said.
“Our goal is to win the Big Ten championship,” said sophomore point guard Isaiah Washington. “It’s nothing less than that.”
Michigan State, as usual, is the Big Ten favorite but Curry said his team isn’t intimidated by the Spartans. He believes the Gophers can make a “huge run in the (NCAA) Tournament.”
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino likes his team, too. Among reasons for his optimism is the roster’s versatility. He said redshirt senior center Matz Stockman is the only Gopher who can’t play multiple positions.
Junior Amir Coffey, who at 6-foot-8 appears to be emerging as the club’s starting point guard, can play three positions. A small forward and shooting guard in the past, Coffey has been impressing—even wowing—teammates in practice.
“He’s been amazing,” Curry said. “So unique that he can play three spots.”
Pitino, Curry and other Gophers talked to the media on Sunday. Then it was announced Monday Curry had surgery on his left knee, the same knee that caused him to miss all of last season following a more complicated surgical procedure. Expectations are it will be four to six weeks before he plays again.
Curry missed Sunday’s scrimmage open to the public because of swelling in the knee. Any long-term absence will not be good for the Gophers because he is a versatile scorer and passer, playing either center or power forward.
Pitino included defense when talking about Curry, explaining that the 6-foot-9 Curry does subtle things that are important. “We’re a much better team when Eric is healthy,” the coach said.
Curry said that in practices the top five players had been him, Coffey, senior forward Jordan Murphy, and senior Dupree McBrayer and freshman Gabe Kalscheur, who are shooting guards or wings in Pitino’s offense. Others who will play significant minutes include freshmen front courters Jarvis Omersa and Daniel Oturu, combo guard Brock Stull and Washington.
There’s proven talent in the group including with Coffey and Jordan who are on a short list of potential All-Big Ten players. By high school reputation there is promising talent, too, with Washington, Omersa, Oturu and Kalscheur. Oturu, who could be one of the Big Ten’s best freshmen, will have more opportunity early now with Curry sidelined. Oturu, 6-foot-10, has the potential to impact games on offense and defense while playing center.
The talent and depth could expand in the next couple of weeks if the Gophers receive a favorable waiver from the NCAA on combo guard Marcus Carr’s eligibility for this season. As a freshman last season at Pittsburgh he led the team in assists and steals, and at 10 points per game ranked third in scoring average. He and the Gophers are asking for eligibility this season, instead of having to sit out a year.
“Marcus plays like a veteran,” Pitino said. “He’s a fantastic competitor. He’s a special player.”
The Gophers’ backcourt depth might have taken a blow if rumors had proven true that Washington wanted to transfer after an up and down freshman season. The flashy point guard from New York City, who mostly came off the bench last season, denied the rumors were true.
“Oh, no,” he said. “I am just going to stay because I love the area, and I don’t think I got time to sit out a whole year and just waste time, so I’d rather just stay here and finish the job.”
Washington said he’s wanted to play in the NBA since he touched a basketball as a two year old and watched a game on TV. The fact is he is more entertaining than many players already in the pro league but he needs to be steadier in his play. “My biggest thing is improving on the defensive end,” he said.
The Gophers could prove talented, versatile, deep and even flashy this season with highlight reel plays by Washington, Coffey and others. If so, the wins will follow and so will the crowds at Williams Arena. The noisy and even intimidating home court advantage the Gophers have isn’t lost on the players.
“Oh, yeah, I see it coming,” said Omersa. “They’re going to come and watch.”