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2018-’19 Minnesota Golden Gophers Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Minnesota Golden Gophers and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2018-’19 season.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Football Media Day Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018-’19 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2018-’19 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.

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One step forward and two steps back.

For the Minnesota Golden Gophers, that’s been the tale of the last decade. Everytime it seems like the program is turning the corner and headed for greener pastures, the train goes off the rails and the building process starts anew. It’s been one thing after another and when all is said and done, it feels like Minnesota is Charlie, waiting for Lucy to pull the football out at the last second.

The latest chapter in this cycle occurred last year. Minnesota entered the 2017-’18 season with momentum and legitimate hopes for the offseason. The team was ranked in the top 25 and coming off a 24-win season. Even though things ended poorly in the NCAA Tournament, it seemed like Richard Pitino had finally figured things out in Minneapolis and fans were about to enjoy the fruits of the struggles during the early portions of his tenure.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Instead of building off that NCAA appearance, Minnesota ended up finishing 15-17 overall and 4-14 in Big Ten play. By January, fans had a pretty clear idea that the team wasn’t going to make the postseason. Ultimately, that’s exactly what happened after Minnesota lost to Rutgers in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament.

Naturally, with last season’s debacle, optimism is scarce. Gopher fans are hesitant to believe in Pitino after watching him miss the NCAAs in four of five seasons at the helm. It’s even tougher to believe in this group with the departures of Nate Mason and a significant hunk of the team’s frontcourt.

But when the skepticism is put aside for a moment, there’s actually a lot to like about this year’s Gopher squad. The team returns most of its contributors from last season, including Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer, and Jordan Murphy. Add in talented young pieces like Isaiah Washington and the 2018 recruiting class and the roster doesn’t look bad.

Given the returning pieces and the mixed results, this is a big year for Pitino and his staff. It’s time for the program to start cashing in on some of this talent. If not, there could very well be a coaching change at season’s end.

So, what will happen? Let’s take a look at this year’s Gopher team.

1. 2017-’18 Season Performance

  • Record: 15-17 (4-14)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #117
  • RPI Rating: #159
  • Postseason Appearance: None

In chatting about college sports, we often hear about how teams fade over the course of various seasons. Generally speaking, I’m generally a bit hesitant to buy into those narratives. The biggest reason is because schedules vary so drastically. Jumping out to a 10-0 record isn’t exactly a fast start if it comes against poor competition. Just like starting out at 0-4 isn’t terrible if all four losses are away from home, or against elite opponents.

However, I think it’s true with regard to last year’s Minnesota team.

During last season, Minnesota raced out of the gates. The team started out 7-0 and recorded a road win over Providence and a win over Alabama on a neutral court. It was enough to vault Minnesota up to 12th nationally in the polls. And it wasn’t false hope, either, as Alabama and Providence both ended up making the Tournament. Even if the Gophers were a tad overrated, the team was still playing at a high level.

And while Minnesota slipped up at home against Miami (FL) in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, it continued to win games through December. After beating Illinois on January 3rd, Minnesota sat at 13-3 overall and 2-1 in Big Ten play. The team had multiple wins over eventual Tournament teams and had added four more wins over top 200 KenPom teams.

By any traditional measure, Minnesota had performed like an NCAA Tournament team through early January. The team was 43rd nationally on KenPom and had a pretty solid resume. It looked like the Gophers had continued to build off the prior year.

However, that’s when the wheels fell off. Minnesota had to deal with the Reggie Lynch scandal and the team subsequently collapsed. The Gophers lost three straight after the Illinois win and 12 of the team’s next 13 games. The final gut punches came by way of a blowout loss on the road to Purdue and an opening round loss to Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament. The team dropped from 43rd to 109th on KenPom during that stretch. An incredible collapse.

Conventional wisdom would lead one to believe that injuries and Lynch’s absence led to the abrupt collapse during the middle of the season. However, that doesn’t account for the sheer ineptitude of this drop. Minnesota lost to Rutgers on a neutral court, got swept by Northwestern, and lost four home games during that stretch. The roster issues hurt the team, but this was more than just that. Minnesota faded as the season continued.

Overall, this leaves us with a pretty bizarre picture. Minnesota was a Tournament team, until it suddenly wasn’t anymore. The question will be whether this year’s team looks more like the early season or the late season Gophers from last year.

2. Offseason Exits

The Gophers will be losing a handful of players this offseason. Of course, the biggest departure will come from Nate Mason. He was a dynamic scoring guard for the team and will be deeply missed this season. No player was more of a consistent offensive option for the team than Mason was last year.

Minnesota will also be losing two contributors upfront in Gaston Diedhiou and Bakary Konate. The two saw time behind Lynch early on, but after his scandal, the two emerged to see more playing time. As such, Minnesota will be losing the vast majority of its minutes at the five spot from last year.

Two other players who will be departing are Davonte Fitzgerald and Jamir Harris. Each played about 30 percent of the team’s minutes last season. Fitzgerald saw his time on the wing and Harris played in the backcourt. Neither was a particularly productive player, but both did add some three-point shooting over the course of the year.

3. New Additions

This season, the Gophers will be adding three new recruits. They are Gabe Kalscheur, Jarvis Omersa, and Daniel Oturu. Both Kalscheur and Omersa are rated as three-star prospects and Oturu is a four-star according to 247Sports. Kalscheur is listed as a shooting guard, Omersa as a power forward, and Oturu as a center.

Oturu is certainly regarded as the top prospect in the class. He is rated top 50 nationally and is expected to contribute as a freshman. With so many departures upfront, Oturu should be able to see minutes relatively quickly.

Additionally, Minnesota is adding three transfers. The first is graduate transfer Brock Stull, who comes out of UW Milwaukee. He averaged 13.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game last season. Marcus Carr and Payton Willis are also additions after transferring in from Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt, respectively. They will sit out the 2018-’19 season due to NCAA transfer rules.

4. Points of Optimism

The Gophers aren’t a perfect team heading into this season, but there’s a lot to like about this roster. And far more to be excited about than many in the national media may have led fans to believe over the last few months.

Undoubtedly, the most exciting thing about Minnesota for this season is the return of so many young contributors. Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy have already shown star potential in Gopher uniforms and Isaiah Washington made quite a mark as a true freshman last season.

A team isn’t made up of only three players, but those three should give Pitino a really good base to work with for this year. Washington should be one of the Big Ten’s better guards in the backcourt, Coffey could be an All-Big Ten player, and Murphy is a proven commodity upfront. That’s a great core to start with this season.

And Minnesota has a lot more than those three, too. Dupree McBrayer is back for his senior season and the team is adding a bunch of new pieces. Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur look ready to contribute as true freshmen and Matz Stockman is eligible after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Michael Hurt and Eric Curry are also back, though Curry will have to miss some time due to injury.

It’s also important to remember that Minnesota was a really solid team through the first two months of last season. It was the roster issues that derailed the Gophers. And with Coffey ready to play again and added depth upfront, many of those problems should be fixed. If so, Minnesota might very well pick up where it was last December.

5. Team Weaknesses

Let’s begin with the obvious. Minnesota wasn’t a great team last year. As I have noted several times, Minnesota genuinely got worse as the year continued, too. The team had stretches where it played like an NCAA Tournament squad. However, when a group finishes 15-17 overall and is 2-14 over its final 16 games, it’s not a great team.

And now, Minnesota is trying to get back on track with arguably fewer pieces than it had last year. Sure, guys like Coffey and Murphy are back, but Mason and two frontcourt contributors in Diedhiou and Konate are gone. It’s also worth acknowledging that Minnesota’s collapse coincided with Lynch’s departure from the roster. While it’s great that he’s gone (for more important reasons), one can’t ignore the fact that Minnesota didn’t accomplish much under Pitino without him contributing in the lineup.

Trying to win more with less usually isn’t a good recipe for success. Perhaps some of the newcomers can break out or previous bench options can take a step forward. However, it’s hard to feel like Minnesota’s lineup is better than it was to start last season and that should be a concerning thought for Gopher fans.

What also requires mentioning is the fact that Minnesota may lack high-end star players. That might seem to contradict what I said earlier in the optimism section, but it’s true. Players like Coffey, Murphy, and Washington have been solid, but none have played at a first team All-Big Ten level for the duration of a season. The Gophers likely need one to get to that level this year to get back to the Tournament.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, Mason seemed like the top candidate to be the team’s best player. Here’s what I wrote in last year’s preview:

Leading the group into this season will be Mason. While I have mixed feelings about whether he deserved All-Big Ten first team honors, he was named among the group last season. Mason figures to be among that same discussion this season as well. Even if he only improves a tad, Mason will be one of the league’s better players.

On top of Mason, Minnesota also returns three other award winners last season. Lynch was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Murphy earned All-Big Ten third team honors, and Coffey was on the All-Big Ten freshman team. It’s not crazy to think all four of these players could end up among the Big Ten’s best 25 by season’s end. That means the competition for Minnesota’s top spot will be a fierce one this season.

One wildcard to watch in this regard will be freshman Washington. He is expected to play off the bench this season, but could make some noise if he hits the ground running. His recruiting rankings indicate that he has a bright future ahead, so the question will be how long it takes for him to get things going.

Generally speaking, I still agree with those statements. Jordan Murphy probably edged out Mason when all was said and done, but both were right there. However, with Mason is gone, there’s no debating that the race for the team’s best player will be open this year.

The safe bet is probably Murphy, given what he did last year. However, Coffey probably has more upside and was really good in the 2016-’17 season. If he can stay healthy and hit the group running, Coffey is probably the team’s best option.

Other players to watch will be Washington and incoming freshmen Kalscheur and Oturu. It’s unlikely any of these three will be the best player, but they are all wildcards.

7. 2018-’19 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/1 - Minnesota Duluth (Ex.)
  • 11/6 - Omaha
  • 11/12 - Utah
  • 11/18 - Texas A&M (Vancouver, BC)
  • 11/20 - Santa Clara/Washington (Vancouver, BC)
  • 11/26 - at Boston College
  • 11/30 - Oklahoma State (US Bank Stadium)
  • 12/2 - at Ohio State
  • 12/5 - Nebraska
  • 12/8 - Arkansas State
  • 12/11 - North Florida
  • 12/21 - North Carolina A&T
  • 12/30 - Mount St. Mary’s
  • 1/3 - at Wisconsin
  • 1/8 - Maryland
  • 1/12 - Rutgers
  • 1/16 - at Illinois
  • 1/19 - Penn State
  • 1/22 - at Michigan
  • 1/27 - Iowa
  • 1/30 - Illinois
  • 2/3 - at Purdue
  • 2/6 - Wisconsin
  • 2/9 - at Michigan State
  • 2/13 - at Nebraska
  • 2/16 - Indiana
  • 2/21 - Michigan
  • 2/24 - at Rutgers
  • 2/28 - at Northwestern
  • 3/5 - Purdue
  • 3/8 - at Maryland

The first thing to remember about this year’s schedule is that the Big Ten bumped up from 18 to 20 conference games this season. For the most part, that means two of the “filler” games have now turned into more challenging conference matchups. Obviously, that’s going to make things more difficult, but it also means that Big Ten slates are going to vary far less. From now on, it’s going to be much rarer to get “lucky” and avoid road trips to places like Ann Arbor, East Lansing, and Madison.

With that out of the way, let’s jump into this schedule.

The clear highlight of non-conference play for Minnesota this season will be the trip to British Columbia in November. The team will get to face off against Texas A&M for a shot at (likely) Washington. The matchups against Utah, Oklahoma State, and Boston College stand out as well.

Conference play will be a bear, as usual, for the Gophers. The team will get double-plays against Michigan, Nebraska, Purdue, and Wisconsin and a road trip to Michigan State. The tale of the season will be how Minnesota plays at home and whether it can steal enough winnable road games against teams like Illinois and Ohio State.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Isaiah Washington (So.) - 60%
  • SG: Dupree McBrayer (Sr.) - 75%
  • SF: Amir Coffey (Jr.) - 95%
  • PF: Jordan Murphy (Sr.) - 95%
  • C: Daniel Oturu (Fr.) - 70%

(Percentage likelihood of starting.)

Unlike most teams that finish near the bottom of the league standings, Minnesota actually projects to have a pretty good lineup heading into this season. The Gophers figure to have four starters with solid track records and a few nice options for the fifth spot.

At the point, Washington seems like the most likely option to grab a starting spot after a nice freshman campaign. He averaged 8.7 points and 2.6 rebounds a game and saw extended minutes toward the end of the season. Notably, he had at least 10 points in seven of the team’s final nine games.

Alongside Washington figures to be the experienced duo of McBrayer and Coffey. The two have already played significant minutes for the Gophers and should be able to lock down starting jobs as well. The primary reserve to note will be Kalscheur. He will likely rotate in at at least two spots. Minnesota can also play McBrayer and Coffey at multiple spots as well.

At the four, Jordan Murphy should be a show-in to start. He was probably the team’s best player last season and should be lined up for a solid 2018-’19 season. Key an eye on Curry and Hurt, though, who both could push for minutes off the bench.

The center position will be the team’s most interesting this season. Oturu arrives with lofty expectations, but he is still just a freshman. Additionally, Stockman comes in with high hopes after transferring in from Louisville. At this time, it seems like Oturu will get the starting nod and the two will rotate heavily. If Minnesota is going to be good, these two have to be productive this season.

9. Team Perspective From Jerry Scherwin

“Let’s start with the good, shall we?

It’s good that Amir Coffey is back from his injury that basically derailed last season (along with some other unfortunate injuries and the suspension of Reggie Lynch). It’s good that Jordan Murphy and his double-doubles are back for what should be a spectacular senior season. It’s good that Richard Pitino can (hopefully) partner Murphy down low with incoming freshman Daniel Oturu who was a Top-100 recruit in the class of 2018. It’s good that The Barn got a nice little upgrade.

What’s not so good is that Nate Mason is gone and the point guard position looks like it could be a season long mess. What’s not so good is that Minnesota finished a season in which they were a preseason Top-25 team finished with four Big Ten wins. It’s not so good that Pitino is 28 games under .500 in Big Ten games in his five seasons. Whats not so good is that Pitino all of a sudden likes to tweet... ALOT... about???:

Can Minnesota turn the ship around? I’m skeptical. Pitino is going to need to push the Golden Gophers back up towards the upper half of the Big Ten Conference to probably get off the hot seat, but I’m not sure there is enough proven depth on this team this season to do so. I like Coffery and Murphy and I think Oturu can be a solid Big Ten big man down the road... but I don’t think they’ll be making any splashes right now.

10. Overall Season Outlook

There’s little debating that this is a big year for Pitino and his staff. The Gophers have seen mixed results during his tenure and fans are eager for him to finally put the pieces together. The team is coming off a 15-17 season and another similar year will likely send Pitino packing.

Luckily, Pitino has more than enough to get things heading back in the right direction. Coffey, McBrayer, and Washington all return and the team is adding an interesting 2018 recruiting class as well. Throw in a big man coming off a redshirt and some returning depth options and there are plenty of things to be excited about for this roster.

The tricky part, though, will be putting it all together. Pitino has had pieces before and has failed to live up to the hype. And this roster is far from proven. There are some intriguing pieces, but this is far from a proven squad. There is a lot that could go wrong and Pitino needs to figure out a way to make it go right.

All told, this looks like a team that could make some noise and has a legitimate chance to be in the NCAA discussion at season’s end. However, Minnesota is still probably a step or two away from seriously competing for a Big Ten title.

Big Ten Prediction: 7th Place