Minnesota enjoyed a remarkable 2016-17 season in which they improved their record by 14 wins over the previous year. Freshman Amir Coffey played a huge role as the Gophers finished fourth in the Big Ten at 11-7 and 24-10 overall.
That performance was good enough to earn Minnesota a five seed in the NCAA tournament, their first birth since 2013. That bid came in 2013 when Tubby Smith took the team to the round of 32, but was fired for perceived under-performance. In little over a year Minnesota fans went from calling for Smith’s replacement, Richard Pitino, to be fired, to worrying that he might bolt for a better situation if the team continues its ascent.
Minnesota enters this season in the Big Ten’s large second tier. While I don’t see them outpacing Michigan State in league play, they do have the talent to challenge the Spartans for best overall record in the conference. Here are the Gopher’s three biggest questions entering the 2017-18 season.
What is Isaiah Washington’s role?
Arguably the most intriguing high school prospect brought in during the Richard Pitino era, Isaiah Washington is blocked by incumbent point guard and team leader Nate Mason. The question, now, is what role he will have this season.
As a pass-first lead guard, Washington thrived with the ball in his hands as a prospect. However Mason projects to play almost every minute of every game, which could limit Washington’s ability to function as a distributor even when he does see the floor. How Pitino balances the roles of these two talented guards will determine the Gopher’s style of play this year.
Who steps up behind Murphy and Lynch?
After Eric Curry went down for the year with a knee injury, the Gophers enviable frontcourt situation turned into something of a question mark. Of course, a starting lineup of Jordan Murphy and Reggie Lynch is the envy of almost every program in the country. But behind their two stars, the Gophers are going to need someone to step up and give them some quality minutes off the bench.
One option could be Davonte Fitzgerald. The 6’8” senior hasn’t played in two years due to a successive transfer and injury, but Richard Pitino and company still like his potential. Another senior, Bakary Konate, is a serviceable backup center and not much more. Sophomore Michael Hurt was a prolific scorer in high school, but it remains to be seen if he has the size to play forward in the Big Ten.
The Gophers frontcourt should be a strength, but if Lynch or Murphy get into foul trouble or miss time with injury, it could turn into a glaring weakness.
Can Richard Pitino sustain success at Minnesota?
After a run of outstanding performance in the mid-1990s, culminating with a Final Four appearance in 1997, the Gophers have won just one NCAA tournament game. After a disappointing upset loss to Middle Tennessee State last March, Big Ten fans should keep a close eye on whether or not Richard Pitino has built this program for sustained success. With so much talent on the roster and coming off a year in which they showed amazing improvement, it is my contention that Minnesota will be a contender in the Big Ten for the foreseeable future.
In conclusion, the Gophers project to be a top end Big Ten team this year with an experienced roster and a budding star of a coach at the helm. If players can buy into roles that may be below their talent level, then this is a team that could be built for a deeper NCAA tournament run this winter.