So much focus has been on Minnesota's frontcourt this season. The inexperience and lack of depth is concerning on the frontline, but the Gophers have been competitive on the glass and defending at the rim more recently. The backcourt is equally inexperienced, but has a little more depth. Minnesota wings have struggled to defend the three, and from night-to-night, a consistent shooter has yet to fully emerge.
Let's check in with the Gopher backcourt and see if any trends have emerged among the group.
Nate Mason, The Steady Hand
Mason has really played steadily in the non-conference. He's tasked with a lot, especially considering the key backcourt departures from last year's team. Mason's the primary ball handler with the starting unit and has been consistent this year. Averaging 33 minutes per game thus far, he's tasked with steadying a fairly young group. Although his shooting percentage is perhaps a bit off so far this season, he's getting to the line and averaging over four assists a game, showing that he has been capable of getting others involved.
Freshmen Finding a Niche
Positively, Pitino seems to have settled on his freshman backcourt rotation, or at least who is going to give key minutes to. When Kevin Dorsey is on the floor, he is the primary ball handler and Mason moves to the wing. Dorsey is a steady point guard, who appears to prefer orchestrating the offense. Mason looks for his shot a bit more, so the combination works for the most part.
On the other side, Dupree McBrayer has been playing more and more for the Gophers, with Pitino giving him 32 minutes against Oklahoma State. McBrayer still needs an outside shot and took some ill-advised deep threes against the Cowboys, but he really attacks the basket and has a knack for drawing fouls. McBrayer drives into the body of moving defenders and is crafty enough to avoid charge calls. McBrayer has been getting to the line 3.5 times per game and took eight foul shots against Oklahoma State, which is an easy way to add points to the scoreboard for Minnesota. Again, he'll need a more consistent outside shot going forward, but he's a savvy penetrator and has found ways to contribute early on for Minnesota.
McBrayer on the attack has also opened up shots for teammates and on a couple drives in Saturday's game, he showed great vision and found open teammates on the perimeter. He hasn't been perfect, but there's plenty of promise in his game, as well as enough potential to buy into McBrayer as a solid addition to the Gophers backcourt come conference season.
Charles Buggs, Carlos Morris
Buggs is more of a hybrid in their small lineups and can shift to the four with his size and athletic ability. Buggs has been a good offensive threat, shooting 53 percent overall and 46 percent from three, which is what Minnesota needs. If he can stretch the floor, the Gophers are more dynamic offensively. Occasionally, it'd be good for him to attack the basket a bit more, considering his athleticism. When the Gophers go small he should be able to drive by bigger, slower defenders.
Buggs didn't play in the Gophers' most recent game against Oklahoma State and Pitino was a bit coy about why, according to Marcus Fuller's piece in the Pioneer Press. Buggs didn't suffer an injury, nor was he disciplined for breaking any team rules.
Conversely, Carlos Morris played a bunch against Oklahoma State, but really struggled from the field, going 3-for-15 against the Cowboys on Saturday night. To his credit, Morris started attacking the basket more in the second half, which is what someone who's struggling should do, but he didn't get many calls or many shots to fall. For the season, Morris is shooting 36 percent overall and from three. He's a more seasoned wing, so the hope is that his consistency returns and lifts the backcourt's ceiling in the near future.
Coincidentally, after a rough two games against two South Dakota programs, Minnesota played Oklahoma State in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Another loss, but the result was more competitive and considerably more impressive, with Minnesota actually leading by nine at one point in the first half.
Pitino may still be feeling out the roster and really looking for answers and what to change. The backcourt has been no exception to the experimentation, especially with McBrayer seeing his role increase minutes-wise. Buggs didn't play against Oklahoma State, while Dorsey and Mason have been sharing ball handling duties and have played plenty of crunch-time minutes together early this season.
To a certain extent, this season is about experimentation and finding out what Pitino has in his deck for the foreseeable future, but establishing some reliable lineups will be important heading into Big Ten play. Most people have written off Minnesota this season, but that doesn't mean the Gophers can't blossom into a competitive Big Ten program this season.