Pitino to Face another Prove-It Year
Gophers basketball has often been so bad in the new millennium it has caused all but the most optimistic fans to have minimal expectations. That has everything to do with why Minnesota’s breakthrough year in 2017 has been received with such enthusiasm and appreciation. Going from a 2-16 Big Ten Conference record in 2016, to 11-7 this year is encouraging, but future optimism will plunge if coach Richard Pitino can’t build on this winter’s unexpected success.
Minnesota has just three winning records in the Big Ten since the 2000-2001 season. This year Pitino and his players earned a third place finish in the conference, the best work in the new century for the program (the Gophers’ previous best was a 10-6 fourth place finish in 2005). Often Minnesota has ranked among either the Big Ten’s most mediocre or worst teams.
The Gophers 11-7 league mark and overall 24-10 record resulted in an invitation to the NCAA Tournament—only the fifth for the program in the last 17 years. The turnaround season was reportedly the best among NCAA teams. This month brought a wall-full of awards from the Big Ten, with Pitino honored as coach of the year and four players recognized for their achievements.
But a year from now Gophers fans will feel down if the team isn’t turning in a report card at least equal to this season. Give the Gophers a B+ or A- for their work in 2016-2017, but ambitions need to go beyond one season, and target success next year and for those following.
The standard for consistency is right next door—just four-plus hours away by car. In Madison there is no doubt each year the Badgers are going to have a winning record, be in the mix for the conference championship, and spend March competing in the NCAA Tournament. The Badgers have finished fourth or higher in the league standings every season since 2001-2002.
It appears the Gophers have the coaches and players to be better next season. The nucleus is even present to create optimism about the team two years from now. Pitino, 35, is still the youngest head coach in power-five college basketball. He has experienced highs and lows in four seasons at Minnesota but has been here long enough now to put a program in place that should annually be consistent and successful.
Pitino made a smart move when during the last offseason he hired former Tulane head coach Ed Conroy, 50, as one of his assistants. Conroy has been a college coach, either as an assistant or head man, since 1990. His presence and experience complements Pitino and the rest of the staff including East Coast recruiting specialist Kimani Young.
Pitino used an eight-player rotation this season and all of those players return next season except for senior guard Akeem Springs who was the team’s fourth leading scorer. That scoring absence could be filled and then some by incoming freshman guard Isaiah “Jelly” Washington, a flashy point producer and playmaker. Close observers will watch to see how the four-star player from New York City fits in with his teammates.
The Gophers played with camaraderie-plus last season. Their teamwork, including a willingness to share the basketball, was one of the key reasons for success. If there were chemistry problems, they must have been minor because on the court the Gophers were a band of brothers. Neither Washington, nor any other player on the roster will be expected to deviate from the togetherness model next winter.
Washington’s presence likely will make the Gophers stronger in at least two ways. First, except for team leading scorer Nate Mason, the Gophers didn’t have a “go-to” closer at the end of games. Second, a must-do for Pitino and staff next season is to develop a quality bench that is three or four players deep. Washington could be an explosive contributor off the bench and join a group of much improved returnees and reserves from last season.
Much more will be expected of reserve forward-center Eric Curry in his second season at Minnesota. He had defensive lapses this winter and sometimes looked flustered at both ends of the court, but he has the potential to be an outstanding all-around player. Others who figure to contribute off the bench include forward Michael Hurt who as a sophomore next fall might be among the team’s best shooters and center Bakary Konate who as a senior needs to play with more on-court savvy.
And then there is junior forward Davonte Fitzgerald who sat out last season because of a major knee injury. The transfer from Texas A&M could come off the bench, or become a starter and give the Gophers a starting lineup with four players who are 6-6 or taller. That development most likely would push Dupree McBrayer to the bench and a reserve role that he played effectively at times last season.
Minnesota’s starters in its final two games were McBrayer and Mason at guards, Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey at forwards, and Reggie Lynch at center. If Fitzgerald becomes a starter, one scenario might have Coffey, who made the All-Big Ten Freshman team, switching to guard.
Another option might be to have Coffey coming off the bench as a super sub, and perhaps the best at that role in the Big Ten. The 6-8 Coffey is the team’s most versatile player and could become the most valuable performer on the roster with all the things he can do. His improvement might include developing into the team’s preferred closer in tight games.
Having Mason back as a senior scorer and playmaker is a big plus. While he is no dazzler passing the ball and finding open teammates, the first team All-Big selection makes few ball handling mistakes and will again be among Minnesota’s top outside shooters. McBrayer is Minnesota’s best player at slashing toward the basket and creating his own shot. As a junior he should continue the improvement of his first two seasons.
Lynch, as a junior transfer from Illinois State, set a school record for blocked shots and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Murphy, who made third team All-Big Ten as a sophomore, helped spark an eight-game conference win streak with his rebounding and inside scoring.
But for the Gophers to be better next season, they will need Lynch and Murphy to avoid the foul problems that too often had them sitting on the bench. Without those two on the floor the Gophers were a different team, as their one and done NCAA Tournament game loss to Middle Tennessee State showed. Different defensively, without Lynch and Murphy guarding the basket, and also missing the inside scoring of the two.
In the Middle Tennessee State game the Gophers lost 81-72. In the team’s prior game, Minnesota lost 84-77 to Michigan in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. In those high scoring losses the Gophers perimeter defense was exposed. That has to be fixed next season, and combined with Lynch patrolling the inside could make Minnesota’s defense special.
With so much talent and experience returning, Minnesota is a potential preseason selection for a top 25 national ranking. Publicity is okay but results are better and the Gophers, who were among the younger teams in college basketball last season, should be determined not to be a one-year wonder. To do that Pitino and staff will need to excel at player development. And the players must build on their strengths and minimize weaknesses, while continuing to keep the identity of a group that does so many things well.
All that will be another step in establishing a program—not just a season.