- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer, Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy, Reggie Lynch, Eric Curry
Key Losses: Akeem Springs
Key Newcomers: Isaiah Washington, Jamir Harris, Davonte Fitzgerald (Texas A&M transfer)
Postseason Projection: 3 - 5 seed
Outlook: No team, read it, NO TEAM, had a better 2016-17 turnaround than the Minnesota Gophers. On the way to Aspen back in 2015-16, Richard Pitino drove the wrong way on the interstate for a few hundred miles, then TOTALLY REDEEMED HIMSELF when he sold the ’84 Sheepdog for a scooter. Pitino’s seat was getting mighty hot after turning in three consecutive sub-.500 conference records and zero Tourney appearances crescendoing into an 8-23 (2-16) 2015-16 campaign. The Gophers flipped the switch last season, surprising everyone with their 15-2 start, 24-10 (11-7) overall record, and 5-seed spot in the Big Dance. Much of this success can be attributed to the maturation of Minnesota’s key young talent; the Gophers were one of the youngest teams back in 2015-16, which showed all too often. Credit Pitino and his staff for their recruiting and developing abilities. Team leader Nate Mason took his game to an entirely different level; guard Dupree McBrayer was one of the most improved players in the Big Ten conference, and big man Jordan Murphy finally started consistently asserting himself after showing flashes back in 2015-16. Of course it didn’t hurt that Pitino added former Illinois State center and 1970’s disco champion Reggie Lynch, and two stud freshmen in Amir Coffey and Eric Curry.
To overuse a cliché phrase: the sky is literally the limit for Minnesota this season. The Gophers lose only one contributor from their breakout squad a season ago, and suddenly become one of the most experienced teams in the conference. Mason is the catalyst of the Gophers’ dribble handoff offensive attack. The sure-handed All-Conference point guard ranked 31st in the country last season in assist-to-turnover ratio, propelling the Gophers to their third ranked Big Ten turnover rate. While Minnesota does look to exploit opposing teams in transition, Pitino’s squad can usually be found running their interior-focused motion offense, which focuses on attacking the rim and finding pockets around the 15-18 foot range to knock down open shots. The Gopher offense purrs when shots are falling, but can stall when teams pack the paint. With Akeem Springs (their most prolific three-point shooter) departing, wings like McBrayer and Coffey will need to step up their outside shooting game.
The Gophers were in the bottom 40 nationally of three-point attempts last season, and ranked 200th in three-point percentage. McBrayer knocked in 41.6% of his 89 three-point attempts last year and is a good bet to double his volume this season with Springs’s absence. Sharp-shooting freshman Jamir Harris and former Texas A&M wing Davonte Fitzgerald could also play roles in improving the Gophers’ shooting woes off the pine. Isaiah Washington, an ESPN 4-star and Mason’s heir apparent, will bolster the perimeter as he learns the ropes in his inaugural season.
Defense was the calling card of the Gophers last season and likely will be again this year. Minnesota ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency per KenPom (3rd in the Big Ten) thanks to paint anchors Reggie Lynch, Jordan Murphy, and Eric Curry. Lynch ranked 2nd in the country in block rate and top 15 in the Big Ten in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. His presence was a large reason the Gophers’ defensive numbers skyrocketed last season. Murphy is one of the most dynamic and versatile big men in the conference despite standing only 6’6’’. He ranked 5th in the conference in defensive rebounding percentage (60th in the country in rebound per game), and on the other end, led the conference in free throw rate with his tenacious attacking of the basket.
Nate Mason is a known commodity by now, but Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy are the two players to watch out for this season up in Minneapolis. Coffey’s freshman shooting percentages (which really weren’t awful at .503/.337/.753) should improve despite an expected climb in usage. He’s a good candidate to lead the Gophers in scoring alongside Mason with his playmaking ability. As for Murphy, I thought this guy was a stud from the first time I saw him play in person back in 2015 at the Barn against Omaha. Expect him to expand his range this season out past the three-point line to complement his athleticism, which has given him devastating penetration ability and offensive rebounding savvy. Semi-hot take: Murphy will average a double-double and shoot above 30% from three on a medium volume this season.
Minnesota’s defense should be as fierce as ever this year. The Gophers have exceptional athleticism on the wings that allows them to get out on shooters to contest three-point jumpers while funneling traffic into the middle where the likes of Lynch, Curry, and 6’11” beanpole Bakary Konate eagerly await. If Pitino’s crew can manage to improve on their subpar shooting numbers (47.5% from 2; 34.3% from 3), Minnesota could contend for the Big Ten crown. Expect a similar year from the Gophers in 2017-18; around 25 wins and a top 5 seed should be a lock.