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2016-’17 Minnesota Golden Gophers Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Minnesota Golden Gophers and what fans should expect for the program heading into the 2016-’17 season.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Illinois vs Minnesota Thomas Joseph-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016-’17 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2016-’17 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers said team.


Hot seat.

Perhaps no term gets more airplay across sports radio stations and talk shows. Every fanbase is subject to hot seat talk at some point. Even if a program has stability, it’s going to creep into the discussion at some point, for better or worse.

For Minnesota, that time is now.

Since arriving in Minneapolis in 2013, Richard Pitino has watched Minnesota go from an NCAA Tournament team to a unit that struggled to stay competitive in the Big Ten. There have been blowout losses, crippling upsets, and frustrating roster attrition. Outside of a handful of games, it’s hard to find much that has went right for the Gophers during Pitino’s tenure.

What’s been especially discouraging about the last three seasons is that Minnesota and Pitino have shown promise. The team was probably a game or two short of an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2014, it should have finished higher (No. 342 in KenPom’s luck metric) in 2015, and has recruited relatively well with Pitino. For better or worse, it’s consistently felt like Minnesota is a break or two away from turning things around.

Which brings us to this year.

As Minnesota prepares to enter this season, Pitino is squarely on the hot seat. Even if Minnesota has been unlucky over the last few seasons, this must be the year. Minnesota has posted just a 51-51 (.500) record under Pitino and has failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Add in that this is just his fourth year as a head coach (one year at FIU) and it’s easy to see why fans need to see something this year. He’s recruited well, but there needs to be some tangible progress for fans and administrators to believe things are headed in the right direction.

The good news is that there are enough pieces for Minnesota to compete in this year’s Big Ten. With Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy back and the addition of a few transfers and a stellar recruiting class, this should easily be Pitino’s most talented group at Minnesota. Maybe it’s not 2014-’15 Kentucky, but there are enough pieces to believe an NCAA Tournament bid is possible, if the players are utilized well. However, balancing so many newcomers and so much inexperience is no easy task and that will be Pitino’s challenge this year.

With that, let's take a look at what to expect from Minnesota.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse's season preview post for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, make sure to check out the site's podcast preview of the Gophers, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and UStreet of the Daily Gopher breaking down Minnesota’s roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2015-’16 Season Performance

  • Record: 8-23 (2-16)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #192
  • RPI Rating: #264
  • Postseason Appearance: None

Minnesota was a really bad team last season. No matter how much contextualizing and excusing one attempts, there’s just no getting around that the Gophers were a really bad team last season. No matter what happens, there’s simply no justifying an 8-23 record and a two-win Big Ten performance.

With that said, Minnesota’s 8-23 performance probably was a tad misleading. The team lost nine Big Ten games by 10 points or less and collapsed at the end of the year due to a crippling series of suspensions. Minnesota shouldn’t get credit for losing close games, but it should be noted. Minnesota was really bad, but it did end up at No. 317 in KenPom’s luck metric and basically gave away four games due to suspensions.

Highlights of the season included wins over Maryland, Clemson, and Louisiana Monroe. While Clemson and Louisiana Monroe weren’t great, Maryland was a Sweet 16 and Minnesota’s win over the Terps remains one of the best upsets of last season. Low points of the year included home losses to Milwaukee, South Dakota, and South Dakota State and blowout losses to Illinois, Northwestern, and Rutgers(!!!).

Individual statistical leaders were Joey King, Nate Mason, and Jordan Murphy. King led the team in total win shares. Mason led the team in minutes, points, assists. Murphy led the team in rebounds, blocks, steals.

2. Offseason Exits

Since the start of last season, Minnesota saw a total of five players depart for a variety of reasons. These players were Charles Buggs, Kevin Dorsey, Jarvis Johnson, Joey King, and Carlos Morris. Two of these players graduated and the rest left due to a variety of other reasons.

The most significant losses from this group come from Buggs, King, and Morris. All three averaged over 20 minutes a game and King was arguably the team’s top overall contributor. Both Buggs and King also ranked in Minnesota’s top five in minutes, rebounding, and blocks and Morris was one of the team’s more consistent scorers. None of these three were outstanding players, but all did contribute significantly from a statistical perspective.

Neither Dorsey nor Johnson are nearly as large of departures. To start, Johnson was never medically cleared with the Gophers. He was a nice recruiting addition, but considering that he never played a minute for the Gophers, it’s hard to rate his departure as all that massive.

Dorsey did put up decent freshman numbers with 6.8 points and 2.3 rebounds per game, but his off-court issues were certainly a distraction, which minimizes the impact of his departure. These are the type of losses that won’t impact Minnesota much now, but will when the team was hoping it would have experienced players in the backcourt down the line.

Minnesota’s in an odd spot with regard to its offseason attrition. The team is taking a pretty big statistical hit, but these departures are coming from an 8-23 team that is looking to rely on newcomers this year. The loss of King is a hit, but otherwise, none of these departures should be anywhere close to crippling.

3. New Additions

This season, the Golden Gophers will be adding one of the deepest and most talented set of newcomers anywhere in the Big Ten. This group will be composed of three scholarship recruits and three transfers. The recruits are Amir Coffey, Eric Curry, and Michael Hurt. According to 247Sports, Coffey and Curry are four-star prospects and Hurt is rated as a three-star. Coffey is listed as a shooting guard, Hurt as a small forward, and Curry as a power forward.

The guy to watch in this group will be Coffey. While Curry and Hurt will each bring their own shares of hype and acclaim, Coffey looks like a legitimate Big Ten Freshman of the Year candidate and should be more than good enough to get a starting spot early in his career. He’s a great offensive weapon that can create his own shot and should have enough size and athleticism to make some noise. It’s also worth noting that his (impressive) scouting ratings probably aren’t even completely accurate as they took a hit due to his high school injury issues.

The other two freshman should both get their own opportunities to compete for minutes in what looks like a pretty deep wing group for Minnesota. Both also have enough size to slide into the frontcourt in the event of injury or bench concerns, which should be a nice boost for the team’s depth.

Along with the recruiting additions, the Golden Gophers are also adding three transfers to the roster. They come from Davonte Fitzgerald from Texas A&M, Reggie Lynch from Illinois State, and Akeem Springs from Milwaukee. Thanks to Fitzgerald and Lynch sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, all three will be eligible to play and in contention for starting roles this season. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald suffered a season-ending injury earlier this month.

The biggest addition of these three should be Lynch. He was a monster rebounder (14.5 offensive rebounding rate) and shot blocker (15.2 block rate) during his time at Illinois State and has the potential to rectify what has been an underwhelming Minnesota frontcourt. The competition level will be much tougher and he will have to play more minutes, but if he can do anything close to what he did with the Redbirds, he could end up being Minnesota’s best addition this offseason.

Springs doesn’t have the lofty numbers like Lynch, but he was pretty productive in his last stop and should be in consideration for a starting role. He probably won’t see massive (30+) minutes a game, but he is good enough to win a spot alongside Nate Mason in the team’s backcourt.

Some of the other Big Ten teams will get most of the attention for their offseason additions, but Minnesota has quietly assembled a group that could completely change the team’s starting lineup this season.

4. Team Strengths

Like many of the teams projected for transitional years, projecting strengths and weaknesses is a difficult task. There are simply too many new faces to hope to have a clear picture as to what the team will do best. However, two areas where the Gophers should make significant progress will be inside the paint and from long range.

Perhaps the biggest improvement for Minnesota’s interior play should come from Reggie Lynch’s addition to the roster. While there’s no arguing that he will have his work cut out to replicate his numbers from Illinois State, his stats with the Redbirds were downright impressive. He led the nation in block rate and led the Missouri Valley Conference in offensive rebounding rate. Anything close to those numbers would be a huge increase for Minnesota.

Along with Lynch’s production, Minnesota returns a big hunk of its frontcourt, including Jordan Murphy. Players like Gaston Diedhiou and Bakary Konate struggled for consistency last year, but between those three and the freshmen, the group could be pretty deep that season. In particular, those returns could be huge for a center position that was a disaster last season. That alone could radically change Minnesota’s outlook this season.

The Gophers could also see some real progress from outside the arc this season. Not only because there’s nowhere to go but up (Minnesota ranked No. 313 nationally in three-point percentage), but also because the addition of players like Amir Coffey and Akeem Springs should help significantly. Although neither projects as an elite shooter, both should be reliable options, which would be a massive change for last year.

5. Team Weaknesses

Despite those areas where Minnesota fans can anticipate some improvement this season, there are still some significant areas that should remain troublesome for the Gophers. The biggest should come on the defensive end of the floor and one area that could suffer regression is in the team’s ball control.

Although defense can be difficult to evaluate this early, it doesn’t take much to think that the defensive side of the court should remain a challenge for Minnesota. Although the team finished at No. 162 defensively last year (much higher than the team’s offense), this is going to be a young team that’s lost a lot of experience. Perhaps I’m overrating the losses of players like Charles Buggs and Joey King, but inexperience generally leads to rough performances on the defensive end of the floor.

The two most significant indicators as to whether Minnesota can avoid regression on the defensive end will come from Amir Coffey and Reggie Lynch. These two will get major minutes and if both can hold their own (or better), it would go a long way. Coffey has the length to be a good defender and Lynch has shown he can be an elite shot blocker in limited playing time. The question will be if these two can meet those goals. Otherwise, things could get rough.

Minnesota could also have some trouble matchings its offensive turnover rate (No. 68 nationally) that it posted last year. The return of Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy should help, but the loss of Joey King (10.6 turnover rate) could be a big blow to the Gophers here. Additionally, with more youth, don’t be surprised to see some stupid turnovers.

6. Top Player

Although Minnesota had a few candidates for its best player heading into last season, the team lacked any legitimate All-Big Ten contenders. Sure, Joey King and Nate Mason had shown some sparks and perhaps a freshman or two could hit the ground running, but there was no dominant player on the roster to get things going.

Things could be different this year.

To start, the emergence of Jordan Murphy during the second half of last season can’t be overstated. He started the year as a middling recruit, but ended the season as arguably Minnesota’s most consistent producer and one of the Big Ten’s best freshmen. How much he can improve from that level remains a major question, but he figures to be the chief contender for Minnesota’s best player this year.

Along with Murphy, there are a few other players that should play into this conversation. The biggest figure to be Amir Coffey, Reggie Lynch, and Nate Mason. While Mason is the only one who has seen time in a Minnesota uniform, all three have the talent and skillsets to be productive this year. In particular, if Lynch can bring his numbers from Illinois State to Minneapolis, he could end up being one of the Big Ten’s best players this season.

A few other sleepers to consider as contenders for Minnesota’s best player are Dupree McBrayer and Akeem Springs. Neither looks like All-Big Ten players on paper, but if things go right and they develop their game, each has the potential to be a wild card for the Gophers.

7. 2016-’17 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/3 - Bemidji St (Ex.)
  • 11/11 - UL-Lafayette
  • 11/14 - UT Arlington
  • 11/16 - Mount St. Mary’s
  • 11/18 - St. John’s
  • 11/22 - Arkansas
  • 11/25 - Southern Illinois
  • 11/28 - at Florida State
  • 12/3 - Vanderbilt (Sioux Falls, S.D.)
  • 12/6 - NJIT
  • 12/9 - Georgia Southern
  • 12/11 - Northern Illinois
  • 12/14 - LIU Brooklyn
  • 12/23 - Arkansas State
  • 12/27 - Michigan State
  • 1/1 - at Purdue
  • 1/5 - at Northwestern
  • 1/8 - Ohio State
  • 11/11 - at Michigan State
  • 1/14 - at Penn State
  • 1/21 - Wisconsin
  • 1/25 - at Ohio State
  • 1/28 - Maryland
  • 2/4 - at Illinois
  • 2/8 - Iowa
  • 2/11 - at Rutgers
  • 2/15 - Indiana
  • 2/19 - Michigan
  • 2/22 - at Maryland
  • 2/(25/26) Penn State
  • 3/2 - Nebraska
  • 3/5 - at Wisconsin

Minnesota easily has one of the toughest schedules in the Big Ten and likely one of the toughest anywhere across the country. Not only have the Gophers set up for a grueling trip through non-conference play, but the team is going to face a buzzsaw in Big Ten play that has the chance to derail the entire season.

During non-conference play, the games that stand out the most are the home matchups with Arkansas and St. John’s, the road trip to Florida State, and the neutral court game against Vanderbilt. All four of these games should offer Minnesota opportunities to get resume building wins and if the Gophers could somehow beat Florida State on the road, it could go a long way toward receiving a postseason bid.

On top of the four marquee matchups, Minnesota also faces five teams ranked in the top 170 on KenPom heading into that season. That might not sound impressive, but any of those games could easily turn into competitive contests where Minnesota’s at risk for an unanticipated loss. Perhaps the biggest sleeper of this group will be the matchup with UT Arlington, who is rated No. 67 (above Minnesota) on KenPom’s preseason rankings.

Despite that slate, things are going to get even tougher in Big Ten play.

Not only did Minnesota draw a particularly hard group of teams in Big Ten play this year, but those games aren’t alloted all that well. To put this into perspective, consider that KenPom projects Minnesota as an underdog in its first 10 conference games. Considering that there are only 18 regular season Big Ten games, it’s pretty easy to see why Minnesota will have its work cut out in Big Ten play this year.

Perhaps the one solace for Minnesota in Big Ten play is that the team has a relatively manageable final stretch of the season. If the team can score a few notable non-conference wins and last through the first half of Big Ten play, a late season run is certainly possible. The schedule probably prevents any major NCAA Tournament run, but if things go right and the team progresses, Minnesota could have a shot at the NIT.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Nate Mason (Jr.) - 95%
  • SG: Akeem Springs (Rs. Sr.) - 60%
  • SF: Amir Coffey (Fr.) - 65%
  • PF: Jordan Murphy (So.) - 95%
  • C: Reggie Lynch (Rs. Jr.) - 90%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

Although Minnesota had some games where it showed consistency in the starting lineup, there were a plethora of players that started or played starting minutes at least once during last season. All of that movement leaves some serious uncertainty heading into this season. However, with some of the talented additions, there are some solid options to lock down some starting spots.

In the backcourt, the clear starter at point guard should be Nate Mason. He was one of Minnesota’s best players over the last two years and as such, should lock down a spot this year. However, there should be some drama alongside him. The two contenders should be Dupree McBrayer and Akeem Springs and each should get minutes. Springs looks like the top option at this point given his experience, but don’t be surprised if either lands the starting spot.

On the wing, there probably won’t be much drama. Although some of the other freshmen have a chance to start, the two players who appear like the starters are Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy. Coffey is the team’s top incoming recruit and Murphy was arguably the team’s best player last season. Unless either underwhelms significantly, they both look like starters.

In the frontcourt, the clear starter at center should be Reggie Lynch. There’s certainly a chance that a player like Bakary Konate could make enough progress to push Lynch, but that’s probably not all that likely. Lynch should dominate the minutes and the bench should rotate to fill the minutes where Lynch hits the bench.

9. Team Perspective From UStreet of the Daily Gopher

"Richard Pitino is widely believed to be fighting for his job this season. Depending on your perspective, this may not be a bad thing. The Gophers have regressed mightily under Pitino, and fans of the program are decidedly uninterested in the team. Interestingly, Pitino does have in place some pieces that could surprise the Big Ten this year. Whether or not the team lives up to that potential depends on the staff's ability to coach them.

After a series of off the court incidents, transfers in and out, and an excellent recruiting class, Pitino's squad will look much different. Reggie Lynch is a distinct upgrade at center, and top recruit Amir Coffey should challenge for Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. They will likely be joined by Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer, and Jordan Murphy. The returners have talent, and like all players ever in the offseason are stronger, faster, and better at the game of basketball. Behind them is a series of questions. The Gophers have good recruits in Eric Curry and Michael Hurt, who the staff have raved about. They also return players with a lot of game experience who should be better suited to bench roles. Incoming transfer Akeem Springs (assuming he stays off twitter) should also provide veteran leadership for the team. If the staff is able to develop the talent that exists on the roster, the Gophers should be much improved. In particular, it's an open question whether the Gophers be able to shoot from distance and defend anybody. Much of that ineptitude stems from poor coaching.

The schedule is not favorable for Minnesota. Most of the non conference is snooze worthy, and the Big Ten slate is difficult. The Gophers will only have one game against most of the predicted bottom tier of the conference, and will have to go on the road against much of the top tier. All told, Minnesota should win more games than they did last season, but are unlikely to win enough for Pitino to keep his job. Optimistically, the Gophers can win 8 conference games. Realistically, anything above 6 will be surprising.” - UStreet of the Daily Gopher.

10. Overall Season Outlook

There’s a lot of ambivalence for Minnesota fans entering this season. Minnesota should have a sense of newfound hope and optimism thanks to the newcomers, but with the struggles over the last few years, it’s hard for any Gopher fans to feel confident. Until some results are seen, not many will give Pitino the benefit of the doubt.

Even if that’s the reality of Pitino and Minnesota’s situation, this is a team and roster that is more than capable of making a run. There are talented options at every spot, depth at every position group, and some potential stars. If players like Coffey, Lynch, and Mason can hit the ground running, Minnesota could do a lot of damage.

Unfortunately, even if Minnesota does show progress, the schedule is ferocious. There are few off nights and the opening stretch of Big Ten play is absolutely brutal. If Minnesota can find a way to last through the early sections, the potential is there to do some damage, but realistically, it’s tough to see.

Minnesota should be headed in the right direction over the next few seasons with its recent influx of talent, but until the team gets some more experience and start quality starters, this looks like another transitional season.

Big Ten Prediction: 12th Place

[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article did not recognize that Davonte Fitzgerald had suffered a season-ending injury. It has since been corrected.]