If we polled Gopher fans we’d probably get an overwhelming number of questions about the upcoming Gopher season. The tenor heading into the season is a weird mix of hope and promise, as well as doom and uncertainty.
We aren’t sure what Mark Coyle, Minnesota’s new athletic director, means to the basketball program and the future of Richard Pitino. We’re not sure how the young talent will grow, or how much the new freshmen will contribute. The point is there’s a lot of questions the Gophers are facing heading into the fall.
Let’s try to synthesize all the hope an uncertainty into three big questions.
1. Can Minnesota’s whole become greater than the sum of its parts?
Kind of an oddly worded question, but essentially, how will Minnesota’s roster gel? This is partly interesting because there’s a huge influx of new talent. The roster gains three transfers and five freshmen. Two key contributors have left the program (Joey King, Kevin Dorsey), but there’s a huge wave of new faces. And those new faces are talented, it’s just a matter of coming together. It’ll be intriguing to watch how roles get defined and how lineups are constructed.
One thing’s for sure, they’ll have to gel relatively quickly, quickly enough to show marked improvement in the win-loss record, which brings me to the next question.
2. How much improvement is enough?
Maybe only Mark Coyle knows the answer to this question, or maybe he’s shared it with important people in the Minnesota basketball program. Almost certainly the Gophers must improve off the court.
But on the court it’s not as clear what the expectations will be. Certainly, record-wise, there’s a lot of upside after a 7-25 season. And realistically, Minnesota will need to add a couple more wins like the one over Maryland at the end of the season. Beating Wisconsin would also help, so would not losing to Rutgers.
Likely it’s not about hitting a certain number, or even contending (which isn’t realistic), but more about the tone of the program. Is the team staying out of trouble off the floor and are they competitive? If the answer is ‘Yes’ to either of those questions, likely the win-loss record will improve and Pitino will show Coyle that he has the program moving in the right direction.
3. Will Amir Coffey be what everyone hopes?
Minnesota has Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason and Pitino loves Dupree McBrayer. That’s a lot of young talent with much promise. But Amir Coffey is the crown jewel of this recruiting class and everyone’s wondering if he’ll become a superstar. He’s intriguing for multiple reasons. His size (6’7”) and skill are a rare combination to the point where he could play as a point-forward. A Murphy-Coffey pick-and-roll could be somewhat devastating.
Coffey’s also a local guy who opted to stay home. Minnesota produces enough local talent for the Gophers to be good if Pitino can get the talent stick around. Coffey could turn the tide if he plays well and the Gophers start winning.
Minnesota just needs to be better this season. Pitino needs to settle lineups, rotations and roles. Beyond that, and more specifically, Minnesota can’t afford early season defensive struggles like last year and more generally, the team needs to develop chemistry in a hurry.