Pitino Upbeat on Team Despite Critics
Richard Pitino’s Golden Gopher basketball team began formal practices last week and will play a season-opening exhibition game in about four weeks against Minnesota Duluth at Williams Arena. How Pitino’s sixth year as coach will go is a mystery to college basketball observers, including me.
Athlon’s college basketball publication forecasts an 11th place finish in the 14-team Big Ten Conference for the Gophers. Dan Murphy, writing for Espn.com last August, placed Minnesota at No. 10 in his Big Ten power rankings.
Street & Smith’s basketball magazine is more optimistic about the Gophers, listing them No. 4 behind Michigan State, Michigan and Nebraska. I am more aligned with Street & Smith’s outlook and believe Minnesota has the personnel to finish between fifth and seventh in the standings.
Front court talent is where the Gophers are most promising. Senior forward Jordan Murphy averaged more than 16 points and 11 rebounds last season. Athlon ranks him the No. 66 player in college basketball and he is on everyone’s list of potential All-Big Ten forwards.
Junior Amir Coffey, a starting forward in the past who could play shooting guard this season, is so versatile he is expected to impact most every game including as a playmaker. Sophomore forward Eric Curry missed all of last season but his scoring and rebounding totals could be in double figures many games this season.
Minnesota’s backcourt outlook is murky with the departure of last season’s senior leader, point guard Nate Mason. Sophomore Isaiah Washington was a flashy but erratic playmaker last season and could be Mason’s successor.
Answering a question last week about Washington, Pitino stressed the importance of improving fundamentals. “…In high school it’s different than college, but I think he is progressing nicely. He’s been really good over the summer. And it’s very important that over the next month, he continues to get better.”
Starting senior shooting guard Dupree McBrayer has a career field goal percentage of .390. His three point percentage is .351. Without improvement, that will open up playing time for combo guard Brock Stull, the senior transfer from Milwaukee who averaged 13.4 points per game last season.
“Really, really good passer. Really good shot-maker,” Pitino said about Stull. “It’s just a matter of getting that conditioning up. That will be there in time.”
For the Gophers to make “crystal ballers” like Street & Smith’s look accurate they will not only need top play from the above mentioned players but also newcomers including top 50 recruit and center Daniel Oturu of Cretin-Derham Hall. Freshmen Gabe Kalscheur (guard) and Jarvis Omersa (forward) may make major contributions too, although it’s possible someone could redshirt. Pitino is still waiting to hear from the NCAA whether Pitt transfer and sophomore point guard Marcus Carr will be eligible for this season or will have to redshirt.
Pitino describes his program as “strong” but others aren’t so sure. “I love where we stand as a program,” he said. “Two years ago we had a terrific regular season. One of the best they’ve ever had (at Minnesota). Last year we were sitting at 13-3 after 16 games. …”
Pitino’s 2016-2017 team was 11-7 in regular season Big Ten games and earned its way into the NCAA Tournament. That was an unexpected turnaround after the Gophers had been 2-16 in conference games the season prior. Last season Minnesota had the impressive start Pitino referenced above but injuries to Coffey, Curry and McBrayer, and center Reggie Lynch’s suspension that hit in January, wrecked what looked like a special year.
“If the Gophers can stay clear of the snake eyes this season, they should be significant factors in the Big Ten race and strong candidates for an NCAA Tournament berth,” Street & Smith’s wrote.
However, both Street & Smith’s and Athlon have Pitino on their national lists of coaches on the hot seat for the coming season. Pitino’s five-year conference record in regular season games is 31-59. In all games he is 12 games over .500 at 90-78.
Dan Murphy’s article for ESPN acknowledged the Gophers great start last season but also said, “…It will take a Herculean effort to get things back on track. Pitino enters the season as the Big Ten coach who has to do the most to keep his job for another season.”
College basketball authorities don’t consider the Big Ten an imposing league. Neither Athlon nor Street & Smith’s has a Big Ten team in its top eight nationally. Athlon ranks Michigan State No. 10 in the country, with Michigan No. 24 and Nebraska No. 25. Michigan State, at No. 12, is the only Big Ten school in Street & Smith’s top 20.
The conference sent only four teams to the NCAA Tournament last season. The Big Ten hasn’t had a national champion since 2000 (Michigan State).
Senior forward Zeke Nnaji, the Hopkins High School basketball star, is being recruited by Baylor and he included the Bears this week on his top five list (he excluded the Gophers). Jared Nuness, who was a standout player for the Royals in the late 1990s, is part of the Baylor staff.
Jared’s dad, Al Nuness, the former Gopher, works at Hopkins and has been impressed with Nnaji for a couple of years. He compared the 6-foot-10 Nnaji with the state’s most coveted senior, forward Matthew Hurt from Rochester John Marshall.
“I think his potential is just as good as Hurt,” said Al Nuness. “He has the potential to be very good. This kid runs the floor, and has a lot of ability. He can shoot and make the three-point shot.”
Congratulations to Minikahda Club pro Jeff Sorenson who topped the 2018 Minnesota PGA standings with 513.70 points and is the Omega Player of the Year. Brent Snyder from Troy Burne was second with 390.50 points. Sorenson has topped the state standings six times since 2007.
The Minnesota United has now sold and distributed more than 50,000 tickets for its last home match of the season at TCF Bank Stadium on October 21. The United is trying to set a new single match attendance record for Minnesota professional soccer. A record announced attendance of 49,572 was established over 40 years ago at Met Stadium for a Kicks game.
The Capital Club, the St. Paul-based networking gathering that features prominent sports speakers, will hear from a panel of prominent female sports reporters including Rachel Blount and Dawn Mitchell on October 23, and Gophers men’s hockey coach Bob Motzko November 13, and Gophers women’s basketball coach Lindsay Whalen November 28.
Meetings are usually at Town & Country Club, but a program is also scheduled for October 30 with a tour of the Treasure Island Center and TRIA Rink. More information about the Capital Club is available at Capitalclubmn.com, or from Patrick Klinger, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dick Jonckowski will sign copies of his new book, It’s All about Me, from 5 to 7 p.m. October 11 at Mancini’s Char House in St. Paul. The book about the well-known Minnesota emcee and public address announcer has been available for about three months. Jonckowski said over 600 copies have been sold. “It’s really going well,” he told Sports Headliners.
Jonckowski can be contacted at 952-261-3013.