2016-17 is an important year for the Gophers. And it’s not about competing for a Big Ten title or making the NCAA Tournament(although I’m sure they’re both preseason goals for the players/staff and would be great accomplishments). Instead, Minnesota just needs to improve and show it’s a program moving in a positive direction.
Certainly, the talent on the roster has been upgraded. It’ll be a matter of bringing the new pieces together and quickly. Let’s start with Minnesota’s backcourt.
Mason took a step forward last season as a leader. He succumbed to a lapse in judgement late in the year and was suspended, though. But on the court Mason demonstrated more vocal leadership and took his play to another level. His shooting dipped, but he still averaged 13.7 points per game and nearly five assists (4.8 per game). With more weapons around him, Mason could lean on his supporting cast more and step back from primary playmaking responsibilities. He can turn into the orchestrator and pick his spots a bit more.
It’s critical for him, and all Gophers really, to not slip up off the court. Minnesota simply isn’t good enough to overcome off-the-court issues and they need Mason at his best.
McBrayer seemed to be a Richard Pitino favorite last year. He played a bunch for a freshman (actually finished second to Jordan Murphy in freshman minutes), not that the Gophers had a ton of other options. But he played ahead of Kevin Dorsey and actually ended up starting 14 of 27 games. McBrayer’s combination of length and athleticism are intriguing attributes.
His game needs refinement, though. And it’ll be interesting to see if he improved his shooting at all from last year (32 percent overall, 25 percent from three). It’s not that he took a ton of threes (only 48), but defenders sagged and dared him to shoot. Facing defenders that played off of him really limited his slash and score/slack and kick game, where he’s most effective.
McBrayer doesn’t need to become Stephen Curry, but he ought to shoot better than 25 percent from three. It’ll open up the floor and make him even more dangerous.
It’s unclear how much Sharp will play this season. Last year he was thrust into heavy duty when Mason, Dorsey and McBrayer were all suspended. That’s a bit of an understatement actually. Over the last four games Sharp averaged 36.5 minutes per game. Looking at it another way, he played a total of 185 minutes all year, 146 of which were in the last four games.
In the backcourt he’s likely behind McBrayer, Mason and Akeem Springs on the depth chart. The wing is crowded too, so unless there’s an injury or suspension he may not see the floor much.
Springs qualifies under the graduate transfer rule and is eligible to play right away after a year at Northern Illinois and two at University Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He ought to factor in the backcourt rotation for Richard Pitino. Springs averaged 13.2 points and 5.3 rebounds a game for the Panthers.
He also scored 15 points in Milwaukee’s win over Minnesota last year, and at 6’4” and 210 pounds, he adds size and experience to the backcourt.
With all the roster turnover, the backcourt has actually been pretty stable. Most of the incoming and outgoing talent will impact the wing and frontcourt.
Of course Minnesota lost Kevin Dorsey, an off-the-bench contributor who opted to transfer to Colorado State, while Akeem Springs enters the picture. But the incumbents Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer will look to build on last year’s experience.