MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The breakthrough that Minnesota enjoyed two years ago became an afterthought last season, as injuries mounted and losses piled up.
Finishing 15-17 was a rough follow-up for the Gophers to their only NCAA Tournament berth under coach Richard Pitino.
“I’m a lot better when we have a healthy roster as a coach,” Pitino said. “I think that at the end of the day when you’re building a program, to get stability it takes some time. I thought we were there last year.”
This season, Pitino’s sixth at Minnesota, will provide yet another opportunity for a reset.
After ominously losing forward Eric Curry to a torn ACL in a summer workout, seeing forward Amir Coffey sidelined by shoulder trouble after 18 games and watching shooting guard Dupree McBrayer hobble through leg injuries down the stretch, the Gophers are healthy again with some talented newcomers in the mix.
“We can’t allow last year to derail that momentum,” Pitino said.
Success will start with senior forward Jordan Murphy, who led the nation as a junior with 24 double-doubles. He averaged 16.8 points and a Big Ten-leading 11.3 rebounds per game in 2017-18. Pitino has advised Murphy to work even harder on his rebounding, for the sake of team and career.
“I know he wants to play in the NBA,” Pitino said. “I told him, ‘You’ve got the numbers. You have shown that you can produce at our level, at a very high level. Now it comes down to, can you show them how hard you play every single possession?'”
Minnesota opens the season Nov. 6 at home game against Omaha.
THE POINT OF IT
The Gophers will miss point guard Nate Mason, who closed his college career last season by averaging 16.7 points per game and leading the team in assists, free-throw shooting and minutes. His understudy was Isaiah Washington, whose first year had more downs than ups in his adjustment from flashy New York City high school star to struggling Big Ten rookie.
“He’s grown a lot on the court. With all freshmen, it’s habits. For him, as difficult as all the injuries were, it thrusted him into meaningful minutes,” Pitino said. “Now it’s just a matter of terminology, understanding offensively, defensively, never taking a play off.”
Akeem Springs was a key contributor in 2016-17, his lone season with the Gophers. This year, another shooting guard from Milwaukee has arrived as a graduate transfer, Brock Stull. He was the second-leading scorer for the Panthers last season with an average of 13.4 points per game.
One attraction for Stull was the presence of former Milwaukee head coach Rob Jeter, who joined Pitino’s staff after two years as an assistant at UNLV. Jeter took the Panthers to the NCAA Tournament twice and won 20-plus games five times in 11 seasons. Prior to that, he was an assistant at Wisconsin under head coach Bo Ryan.
“He knows how to win in this league. He knows how to recruit the area. He’s a really good person,” Pitino said. “He’s been a terrific addition.”
Stull was one of three offseason transfers, though the only one eligible for now. Matz Stockman, a 7-foot native of Norway who sat out last year after three seasons at Louisville, could give the Gophers an intriguing option underneath.
The top big man off the bench will be Daniel Oturu, one of three incoming freshmen from the Twin Cities area along with forward Jarvis Omersa and shooting guard Gabe Kalscheur. The 6-foot-10 Oturu was a consensus four-star recruit who helped lead Cretin-Derham Hall High School to the Class 4A state championship with a dunk off a lob pass at the buzzer.
The Gophers have five opponents on their schedule from the other five major conferences, the most since Pitino arrived to better meet NCAA Tournament selection criteria.
The Gophers host Utah on Nov. 12, followed by a trip to Canada to face Texas A&M and Washington over a three-game set in the Vancouver Showcase. They play at Boston College as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Nov. 26 and take on Oklahoma State on Nov. 30 at U.S. Bank Stadium to give the site of the season’s NCAA Final Four a test run as a basketball venue.
MORE OF IT
The Gophers visit Ohio State on Dec. 2 and host Nebraska on Dec. 5, before diving full-time into the new 20-game Big Ten schedule on Jan. 3 at Wisconsin. The six teams they only face once are Ohio State, Northwestern and Michigan State on the road and Iowa, Penn State and Indiana at home.