Arguably, Minnesota’s frontcourt was its greatest weakness heading into last season. The unit lacked depth and experience and it was part of the reason Minnesota could only muster eight wins last season. Nobody knew what to expect for certain from Bakary Konate, Jordan Murphy and Gaston Diedhiou, while senior Joey King brought experience and played admirably, defending much larger people.
Looking back, the frontcourt really wasn’t as huge of a problem as anticipated last year. Scoring aside, many thought the Gophers would struggle to defend and more specifically, protect the rim.
By the rebounding numbers, the frontcourt played pretty well despite lacking size and depth. The Gophers were only out rebounded 37.7 to 34.5 on average. Looking closer at the numbers, Minnesota grabbed 10 offensive rebounds per game, and only gave up 10.1. Konate, Murphy, Diedhiou and King accounted for 51 percent of the team’s total rebounds.
Even looking at rim protection, Minnesota only finished with six fewer blocks than their opponents (119 to 113). Murphy and Konate had 32 and 31 blocks on the season, respectively.
King has graduated, but Minnesota returns Konate, Murphy and Diedhiou. Plus, Pitino has added experience in Illinois State transfer Reggie Lynch. Let’s take a look at the group heading into 2016-17.
Murphy’s largely the reason this group performed so well a season ago. He is an explosive athlete (who can really jump) and his athleticism allows him to score on and defend much larger people.
As a freshman, he nearly averaged a double-double (11.6 points, 8.0 rebounds per game). Murphy struggled, though, with foul trouble. On occasion, he picked up cheap fouls, or found himself out of defensive position. He tallied 103 personal fouls last year and fouled out five times (both led the team). His defensive lapses appeared to be freshmen mistakes and are entirely correctable issues, though, so there’s optimism for considerable improvement this season.
Murphy ought to get better this year, particularly on defense. He needs to stay on the floor because he’s an elite rebounder and explosive around the rim. His versatility and ability to play bigger than his size suggests (6’6”, 240) unlocked Minnesota’s small lineup.
If Murphy can improve with foul trouble Pitino will have exciting possibilities with his lineups (especially on defense) because the team will be big on the wing (Dupree McBrayer, Amir Coffey, Eric Curry, Michael Hurt) and can switch a bunch.
Konate showed great improvement last year. He wasn’t polished, certainly on offense, but he showed pretty good intelligence defensively. Konate protected the rim effectively without fouling and largely employed the stay-between-my-man and the rim in post defense. It was effective.
With Reggie Lynch coming in, and Pitino’s other lineup options, it’ll be interesting to see where Konate’s minutes go (either up or down). If he can show a bit more polish offensively and continue his defensive progress, he’ll play...but how much? Murphy will likely play more, if he manages his foul trouble better, and Lynch will steal minutes. Depending on certain factors, Konate may be forced to come off the bench in 2016-17.
Lynch wasn’t charged after a sexual assault allegation earlier this year and is about ready to join the team. A knee injury further set back his Gopher career, but according to Marcus Fuller of the Star Tribune, Pitino indicated that Lynch is nearly ready to join practice at full speed.
Lynch is a physical presence. Not an elite athlete, but he’ll play physically and finish around the rim. He’s more polished offensively than Konate, but not the athlete that Murphy is. Lynch has been away from the Gophers for stretches, first with the sexual assault allegations (no charges filed) and then with the knee injury. He sat out last year, so he presumably understands Minnesota’s system, but he’ll need to knock some rust off considering the off-season interruptions.
Gaston Diedhiou is the other wildcard. He didn’t see the floor much last year and unless he has improved markedly, may not again. Diedhiou only played five minutes a game and largely toward the end of the year.
Minnesota’s frontcourt exceeded expectations last year. Both Konate and Murphy played better than expected, with King helping a bunch too. Minnesota likes to play smaller and faster anyway and the Gopher frontcourt is well suited for it.