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What We Learned: Minnesota’s Exhibition Game

The Gophers opened the season with an exhibition game against Bemidji State.

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

Tonight, Minnesota opens its 2016-’17 regular season against University Louisiana-Lafayette at Williams Arena. The game marks the start to a critical season. After last season’s 8-23 It’s critical that the Gophers start fast in the non-conference.

Last year, Minnesota finished the non-conference schedule 6-6, and then rattled off 13 consecutive losses to start Big Ten play. The Gophers need a much faster start, and quite obviously, must avoid double-digit losing streaks once they begin conference play.

It’s one game, and it’s an exhibition. But, the team’s 83-59 win over Bemidji State on November 3rd at Williams Arena (its final exhibition tuneup) offers some reason for optimism. The young talent looks promising, and ready or not overall, will offer sizable contributions in the coming year. Let’s take a look at some larger themes from the game.

Nate Mason’s Injury

Mason didn’t play against Bemidji State a little more than a week ago, as he recovers from a concussion suffered in practice. Pitino expects him to play in the season opener tonight.

Mason’s the incumbent leader from last year’s team, and ran the offense. He also did most of the scoring, by necessity (averaged 13.8 PPG). This season he may be able to step away from the scoring, and facilitate more.

Jordan Murphy Shines

The odds are good that Murphy makes another big leap. His athleticism isn’t up for debate, but did he refine his offense in the off season and expand his game? Against Bemidji State, he went 9-for-12 and scored 22 points in 28 minutes.

He also struggled to stay on the floor last year. An exhibition won’t tell us much about whether he’s a smarter defender, but he only picked up one foul against Bemidji State. It’s too soon to say he’s improved in that area, but we’ll know quickly enough once he’s defending better athletes.

Reggie Lynch vs. Bakary Konate

It’s pretty clear that Lynch will be the starting center, and with all his off the court situations the last 6-8 months, he played well. Although fouling out in 14 minutes, Lynch scored 10 points on 4-of-7 from the floor.

Konate only played five minutes, and for now, if Lynch stays on the floor, he’ll be the go to guy in the middle.

The Freshmen

With Mason out, no doubt Amir Coffey had to take on more of the ballhandling responsibilities. He scored six points in 33 minutes, but also had six rebounds and five assists, demonstrating his all-around talent.

Again an exhibition, but Eric Curry had a monster game (17 points, 14 rebounds, five of them offensive). Herein lies the ceiling for the Gophers.

If Coffey and Curry play like bluechippers, the Gophers have good depth, and some pretty interesting lineup combinations. It’s incredible how different this team is from a year ago, from a depth and talent perspective.

Shooting

Minnesota was a pretty poor shooting team last year. The Gophers finished dead last in three-point shooting percentage in the Big Ten (conference games only) at 28 percent (100-for-351).

Against Bemidji State, the Gophers shot 4-for-19 from three. (They also shot 19-for-32 at the line, which isn’t great but we’re talking about outside shooting.) Athletically, Minnesota has the wing talent to attack the basket, but they’ll need to space the floor a little better than 28 percent. Again, tough to draw firm conclusions on whether Minnesota will improve its team shooting after one exhibition game, but it’s something to watch.

Overall

I didn’t even mention Dupree McBrayer’s 18 points, and Akeem Springs playing 24 minutes. Amazingly, the Gophers have tremendous depth, and Richard Pitino can get creative with his lineups, unlike last season. The stars are beginning to align for Minnesota, and we’ll just see if it translates to wins.