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2019-’20 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 2019-’20 season.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Michigan State vs Minnesota Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019-’20 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2019-’20 ‘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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Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen a fair number of Big Ten coaches come and go. Some have left willingly like John Beilein, some have been run out of town after failing to meet expectations like John Groce, and others have been pushed out with mixed feelings. One of the coaches in the third category was Tubby Smith.

And while many Gopher fans are probably annoyed at the mention of Smith, it’s where Minnesota’s recent story begins. Whether you agree with the decision to let Smith go in 2013, we all know the logic behind the season. Minnesota was hoping to grow from a semi-relevant team into a player on the national scene. The athletic department expected more than Smith’s three trips to the NCAA Tournament in his six years at the helm.

And in an effort to achieve this goal, Minnesota turned to Richard Pitino.

While Pitino was a relatively unproven coach, he had the name and energy that many thought could lead to great results down the road. Going for a young option like Pitino was a risk, but it was also a move that could lead to massive success. After all, what if Minnesota happened to grab the next hot and trendy coach on the rise? This was an opportunity to skip a step or two in building a program.

Unfortunately, that just hasn’t been the case. The Gophers won 22 games last season and made the Round of 32, but Pitino only has two NCAA Tournament appearances in his six years in Minneapolis and a 112-92 (.549) overall record with the Gophers. The team also had two horrendous seasons under his leadership, finishing below .500 in 2015-’16 and 2017-’18 and well outside the top 100 in KenPom in the same years.

So, things haven’t gone all that well. But where does that leave us?

Well, there have been some signs that Pitino is starting to build something. To start, his two trips to the NCAA Tournament came in the last three years and the team also had some off court issues in 2017-’18 that likely resulted in the team missing the postseason. The Gophers have also been recruiting pretty well over the last few years, landing a handful of top 100 prospects the last few years. In short, Minnesota does have some good signs.

The question, though, is whether Pitino can elevate the program to that next level. Minnesota’s generally been a team around 50th on KenPom since his arrival and hasn’t been relevant in the Big Ten title race. So, can Pitino get it done this year? Let’s take a look.

1. 2018-’19 Season Performance

  • Record: 22-14 (9-11)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #46
  • NET Rating: #55
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA (R32)

Let’s be abundantly clear about things here. Minnesota had a really solid 2018-’19 season. Nobody can take a reasonable look at the team’s overall performance and say anything contrary to that position. The Gophers won 22 games, made the NCAA Tournament, and recorded some great wins over teams like Louisville, Purdue, and Wisconsin. Even if fans were hoping for more, that’s not a bad performance. Most people are going to take that.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to look at Minnesota’s season and not get the sense that there was more for the taking. An early loss to Boston College stands out, as do losses to Illinois, Nebraska, and Rutgers in Big Ten play. Additionally, it’s worth noting that Minnesota had five other losses that came by 10 points or less. That’s four losses against inferior competition and five in competitive contests. It’s not crazy to think many of those could have been wins.

It’s unreasonable to believe the Gophers could have won all of the games noted above, but if the team had just been a hair or two better, last season could have been a special one for the program. A little better seeding and the Gophers might avoid Michigan State in the Round of 32. If so, who knows what happens there. Perhaps the Gophers get back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1997.

But as we all know, that’s not what happened. Minnesota blew some games to inferior teams, couldn’t close out marquee games against Michigan and Wisconsin, and fell to the Spartans by a significant margin in the NCAA Tournament. Some of those issues were injury related, but they happened all the same. And they turned what could have been a special year into a year that was just solid. While it’s nothing to cry over, it’s nothing to overly celebrate either.

Highlights of the season included wins over Oklahoma State and Washington in non-conference play, the upsets over Purdue and Wisconsin during Big Ten play, and the postseason wins over Purdue and Louisville. Low points of the season included the rough losses to Boston College, Illinois, and Rutgers.

Individual statistical leaders were Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer, Jordan Murphy, and Daniel Oturu. Coffey led the team in minutes, points, assists, and usage among contributors. McBrayer led the team in steals. Murphy led the team in rebounds and total win shares. Oturu led the team in blocks.

2. Offseason Exits

Minnesota was a relatively experienced team last season, finishing at 171st nationally in KenPom’s experience metric. The team wasn’t ridiculously aged, but it relied on a lot of upperclassmen. With that in mind, it isn’t exactly shocking to see that the Gophers will be watching a handful of key contributors leave this season. This group includes key playmakers like Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer, and Jordan Murphy. All told, Minnesota is losing seven players from last year’s roster.

The most significant departures will assuredly come from Coffey and Murphy. They were Minnesota’s two best players last season and they played massive minutes. Coffey came in at around 88 percent of team minutes and Murphy finished around 77 percent. Coffey was the team’s best offensive playmaker and Murphy was the team’s dominant force on the boards. These two killed it for the Gophers over the last few years.

And how important were they to this Minnesota team?

Look no further than Minnesota’s win over Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament last March. Coffey and Murphy combined for 48 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists. Murphy finished with a 133 offensive rating and Coffey with a 114. Minnesota finished with a total of 75 points in the upset victory for what might have been the team’s best win of the season. There’s simply no way that happens without them.

Unfortunately, Minnesota is also losing another handful of players. The most significant departures of that group will be McBrayer and Matz Stockman. During last season, McBrayer started 35 games for the Gophers and Stockman played extensive minutes as a reserve big man. The good news is that neither of these players are irreplaceable. McBrayer finished with an offensive rating below 100 over the course of last season and Stockman was still just a reserve big man. For instance, in that Purdue game described above, Stockman played a total of eight minutes and didn’t score a single point.

The final departures come from Jarvis Johnson, Brock Stull, and Isaiah Washington. None of these departures are substantial by themselves. Stull and Washington were reserve players last season and Johnson never even played. Both Stull and Washington also finished with offensive ratings below 90 during last season. All three had some excitement earlier in their careers, but it’s fair to say that none of the three were All-Big Ten level players when they departed from the Gophers.

Minnesota got hit with departures this offseason. There’s no reasonable way to evaluate this roster and who’s leaving without reaching that conclusion. For perspective on what the Gophers are looking at replacing, just look at where these players ranked on the roster in win shares. Coffey and Murphy led the team and McBrayer and Stockman were in the top six as well. Win shares aren’t everything, but it isn’t exactly easy for a team to replace four of its top six contributors in a single offseason. That’s going to be this team’s challenge.

3. New Additions

This season, the Gophers will be adding four new recruits and one transfer. The recruits are Sam Freeman, Bryan Greenlee, Isaiah Ihnen, and Tre Williams. Greenlee is listed as a point guard, Williams as a shooting guard, Ihnen as a power forward, and Freeman as a center. Ihnen is rated as a four-star prospect by 247Sports and the other three are listed as three-stars. The transfer addition is Alihan Demir.

The new addition receiving the most hype is certainly Ihnen, who arrives as a top 100 prospect. He comes out of Germany and is listed at 6-foot-9 and 190 pounds. International prospects are notoriously hard to evaluate before they arrive on campus, but there have plenty of good recruits out of Germany in recent years and Ihnen projects to be another at a real position of need for the Gophers with Murphy departing.

Admittedly, none of the other three prospects are going to get much attention heading into the season. Williams is rated 133rd nationally by 247Sports and the other two prospects were outside the top 400 nationally. Given those ratings, Williams seems the most likely to see early playing time, but he’s going to have to compete with Gabe Kalscheur and Payton Willis in the backcourt. Fans are hoping Greenlee and Freeman can provide depth elsewhere.

The transfer addition is Demir, who is a graduate transfer from Drexel. Demir is originally from Turkey and played the last two seasons with Drexel. He was a key piece of last year’s team and displayed an impressive interior game. He is listed at 6-foot-9 and 232 pounds and is also an impressive rebounder. Most fans are expecting him to try and step in and fill in the void of a departed Murphy.

Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that Carr and Willis are coming off redshirt seasons. Carr transferred in from Pittsburgh and Willis from Vanderbilt. Carr played over 70 percent of Pittsburgh’s minutes during the 2017-’18 season and Willis was a respectable three-point shooter and a decent rebounder for his size at Vanderbilt. One of Willis’ main issues with the Commodores was his turnover issues, so fans will hope he can get some of those corrected this year.

Replacing program greats isn’t exactly easy and it would be disingenuous to suggest that the Gophers are doing so with this group of additions. Nonetheless, there’s a lot to like here. Minnesota has two new transfers that could contribute immediately and another top 100 prospect. Add in a few more developmental prospects and this could be the core of the future.

4. Points of Optimism

While expectations figure to be a bit tempered for this year’s Gopher squad, there are still some major things to be excited about this year’s group. Namely, the frontcourt and the significant offseason additions. The team also has a potential star upfront in Oturu.

Let’s start with the best thing Minnesota has coming into this season and that’s the frontcourt. When the team had players like Coffey and McBrayer, it was pretty clear some of the team’s focus shifted from the frontcourt to the wing and backcourt. And rightfully so. Coffey was a fantastic player and others like McBrayer and Kalscheur made their marks as well. Good coaches will figure out how to utilize their best pieces.

But with the team’s offseason departures, Minnesota’s best bet for a star is Oturu. He had a really nice performance during his freshman season last year and figures to step it up even more this year. He was a really good rebounder and drew a lot of fouls on the offensive end. He’s arguably the team’s best returning piece and should be the centerpiece for the Gophers this season. A lot of this year will live and die with his play.

Minnesota also has a lot of potential breakout players alongside him. Murphy may be gone, but the frontcourt remains pretty deep and experienced. Hurt and Omersa are both back and the team also welcomes Demir, Freeman, and Ihnen as well. If even one of these five can become a quality starter, this could be a really good frontcourt. That should give the team a nice place to start as it figures out things elsewhere.

It’s also worth reiterating here just how much Minnesota is adding this offseason. The Gophers may not have the best 2019 recruiting class in the team rankings, but the Gophers are effectively adding four freshmen and three transfers. There’s a decent chance Minnesota gets at least three immediate contributors out of that group. That should go a long way toward filling in the lineup around the returners and keeping the team competitive.

The takeaway here is that Minnesota has enough pieces to make some noise this season. It’s going to need a few things to break the right way, but this isn’t a roster devoid of talent. And that has to be exciting news for fans heading into this season.

5. Points of Concern

This probably wouldn’t come as a major surprise, but with so much offseason attrition, there are a lot of areas of concern for the Gophers coming into this season. Most notably, how the team will replace so many significant departures and whether the team can find another star level contributor. Fans also have to wonder just how much the newcomers can contribute in year one.

The biggest question mark for this team lies with the team’s substantial offseason departures. The Gophers aren’t just losing some players. They’re losing some of the team’s biggest contributors. Coffey and Murphy were arguably the team’s best players, McBrayer was a starter, and players like Stockman and Washington contributed off the bench as well. That group includes the team leader in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, steals, usage, and total win shares.

And while it does seem like Minnesota has an answer for replacing some of these players, none of these are guarantees. For instance, Minnesota’s frontcourt figures to have some nice depth, but can any one player fill in for Murphy? It seems unlikely. Things could also be even worse in the backcourt where Coffey departs as one of the better Gophers in recent memory. It’s hard to see anyone replacing him in stride.

Perhaps the most significant issue engulfed in this discussion is Minnesota’s lack of a proven returning star. This preview spoke about Oturu’s potential above, but Coffey and Murphy were the only Gophers to earn any All-Big Ten honors last season. While Oturu was good as a freshman, he’s going to have to be even better to carry Minnesota this season. And if he can’t take that next step, Minnesota will have to turn to an inconsistent returner in Gabe Kalscheuer and newcomers. That’s not a great spot to be in for a roster.

It’s also important to remember that Minnesota lacks any proven newcomers entering this season. The Gophers aren’t welcoming in a group of five-star prospects. The 2019 recruiting class is nice and the transfers should be able to contribute, but none are guarantees. My guess is this group ends up making quite a mark. However, we’ve seen newcomers underwhelm too regularly to act like these players are guarantees.

Minnesota has the pieces to answer these questions in a positive manner. However, it’s going to take some luck and some fortunate bounces.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, the two clear options for the team’s best player were Coffey and Murphy. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

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.

It’s hard to disagree with that conclusion. Murphy ended up leading the team in total win shares and Coffey dominated the team’s offensive possessions. Even if there wasn’t a huge divide between the two, they were head and shoulders above everyone else. These were the guys that got Minnesota back to the NCAA Tournament and among the top teams in the league.

But with Coffey and Murphy now departing, there’s a pretty big void to fill. The best returning player is Oturu, but growing from a productive starter into a star isn’t an easy task. Oturu’s biggest challenge will simply be staying on the floor. He only played 57.7 percent of the team’s minutes last season. If he’s going to become Minnesota’s best player, he will have to do better than that this time around.

Other potential options here are Kalscheur and the two transfer additions in Demir and Willis. During last season, Kalscheur really hit the ground running and was deadly from outside. If he can maintain his efficiency with more possessions, watch out. Demir and Willis both have experience and should get plenty of opportunities. Willis will probably get more of the offensive opportunities this season.

The safe bet here is likely Oturu. He has tremendous talent and plenty of upside. However, don’t sleep on Kalscheur and Willis as there will be plenty of offensive opportunities for both.

7. 2019-’20 Schedule Breakdown

  • 10/28 - Southwest Minnesota State (Ex.)
  • 11/5 - Cleveland State
  • 11/9 - Oklahoma (Sioux Falls, SD)
  • 11/12 - at Butler
  • 11/15 - at Utah
  • 11/21 - Central Michigan
  • 11/24 - North Dakota
  • 11/29 - DePaul
  • 12/2 - Clemson
  • 12/9 - at Iowa
  • 12/15 - Ohio State
  • 12/21 - Oklahoma State (Tulsa, OK)
  • 12/28 - Florida International
  • 1/2 - at Purdue
  • 1/5 - Northwestern
  • 1/9 - at Michigan State
  • 1/12 - Michigan
  • 1/15 - Penn State
  • 1/19 - at Rutgers
  • 1/23 - at Ohio State
  • 1/26 - Michigan State
  • 1/30 - at Illinois
  • 2/5 - Wisconsin
  • 2/8 - at Penn State
  • 2/16 - Iowa
  • 2/19 - Indiana
  • 2/23 - at Northwestern
  • 2/26 - Maryland
  • 3/1 - at Wisconsin
  • 3/4 - at Indiana
  • 3/8 - Nebraska

This genuinely might be my favorite schedule of any team in the Big Ten heading into this season. Not because it’s loaded with elite opponents, but because it’s so well designed. The Gophers have a fantastic mix of good, solid, and bad opponents. It’s easy to see how things were set up here for Minnesota. This isn’t a slate to build a top NCAA seed, but could be enough to get a team in on Selection Sunday.

Non-conference play is honestly pretty balanced for the Gophers. This isn’t going to be a slate dictated by a game or two. Minnesota will get Oklahoma on a neutral court in early November, travels to Butler and Utah, and gets teams like Clemson and Oklahoma State in December. What I like about these games is that they’re all pretty winnable on paper. Outside of the Sooners, all these teams were around the lower half of the top 100 on KenPom last year, meaning there shouldn’t be any sure-fire losses here.

One thing that is notable about the schedule is how challenging the opening to Big Ten play will be for the Gophers this season. Look at the team’s first six league games:

  • 12/9 - at Iowa
  • 12/15 - Ohio State
  • 1/2 - at Purdue
  • 1/5 - Northwestern
  • 1/9 - at Michigan State
  • 1/12 - Michigan

While those games aren’t consecutive, there’s a decent chance Minnesota opens up at 2-4 or worse. Five of those teams made the NCAA Tournament last season and all five of those teams advanced once they made it there. And considering that those of those games are at Michigan State and Purdue, things probably aren’t going to start super well for the Gophers.

Things get easier after that, but a young Gopher squad is going to need to avoid getting too down after that stretch. After all, while things get easier, Minnesota still gets road trips to Illinois and Ohio State and home games against Michigan State and Wisconsin soon after that. A lot of this season is just going to be the team avoiding getting into one of those poor stretches like Indiana did last year. One loss could quickly become three or four with this slate.

With all that said, this schedule is still pretty well set up for Minnesota. If the team can find a way to win some of these 50-50 games early, watch out.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Marcus Carr (Rs. So.) - 95%
  • SG: Gabe Kalscheur (So.) - 85%
  • SF: Payton Willis (Rs. Jr.) - 75%
  • PF: Alihan Demir (Rs. Sr.) - 80%
  • C: Daniel Oturu (So.) - 95%

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

Like many teams in the Big Ten this year, Minnesota’s lineup will be a bit fluid entering the season. The Gophers probably have three locks to start the first game, but the other two spots appear open for some competition and the three likely starters could move around, depending on who develops around them. That’s encouraging because it gives Pitino some flexibility entering the season.

The backcourt appears to be pretty stable entering this season. With Kalscheur now returning and Carr now eligible, it seems like a virtual lock that the two will start alongside each other. Kalscheur showed some really encouraging signs last season and Carr is one of the more experienced players on this year’s team. He didn’t necessarily light things up during his time with Pittsburgh, but is more than capable of starting for the team next season.

Perhaps the only question in the backcourt is who develops around these two. Willis is also eligible after sitting out last season after transferring from Vanderbilt and the Gophers are welcome two freshmen in Greenlee and Williams as well. Given that Kalscheur has shown they can play off the ball, don’t be shocked if Pitino decides to play three guards on the floor, assuming one of these projected depth options develop. And if not, Minnesota should have a number of options to provide bench minutes between those players.

The wing projects to be the weakest group for Minnesota entering this season. With Coffey, McBrayer, and Murphy departing, Minnesota has some major questions on its hands. My guess is that Pitino will put three guards on the floor with Willis on the wing and play Demir as well. Both should provide experience to a roster that otherwise lacks such.

And unfortunately for Gopher fans, the team doesn’t have a ton of other options on the wing. Curry went down with injury, Hurt is going to need to provide depth upfront, and Omersa played, but not great last season. Perhaps the best case scenario is that further depth develops upfront and Hurt can see more playing time on the wing as well.

Upfront, everything is going to ride with Oturu. He had a great freshman campaign and fans are hoping he can build off that this time around. There’s little debating he will dominate the minutes at the five. The only real question is whether he can actually sustain something close to 30 minutes a game. That’s a tall task for big men. Behind him, expect Hurt and freshman Freeman to provide most of the reserve minutes.

Minnesota’s talent and roster depth don’t jump off the sheet when you look at this team. Nonetheless, there are some nice pieces to work with heading into this season. If the Gophers can get the newcomers rolling early, don’t be surprised if this team outperforms expectations.

9. Team Perspective From The Daily Gopher

“The Gophers enter the 2019-20 season after graduating two all-Big Ten caliber players, both of whom are competing for NBA roster spots. The amount of production lost from Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey (and 4-year starter Dupree McBrayer as well) is daunting as those three combined for 41 points per game and each played at least 31 min per game. So when you are replacing that much production from one year to the next, there is inevitably very low expectations. Especially from those outside of the program.

So what do they return? Well they are adding 7 new names to the roster to go along with two sophomores who had very promising freshman seasons. Of those 7 new names 2 were a part of the team last year sitting out due to transfer rules, 1 is a graduate transfer and 4 freshmen. One of last year’s transfers, if he isn’t the team’s best player he will certainly be the team’s leader. Marcus Carr will be the team’s point guard and is going to be very good. He will compliment the sophomore duo of Gabe Kalscheur and Daniel Oturu to be this team’s core. How good will this team be? It really depends on the rest of the new names and if a couple guys step up to be regular contributors. Tre Williams and Isaiah Ihnen are two freshmen to keep an eye on.” - The Daily Gopher.

10. Overall Season Outlook

With so many pieces sliding in and out of Minnesota’s roster this offseason, it’s hard to put a finger on what this team will be this season. There’s a chance the Gophers are once again in the thick of an NCAA Tournament race. And on the other side, there’s also a chance this team regresses to the lower levels of Pitino’s tenure.

It’s just one of those seasons.

On the positive side, there are some real things to like about this team. Kalscheur and Oturu return after productive seasons, Minnesota is adding valuable depth on the transfer market, and the team also has a handful of young options. This team really just needs one or two guys to surprise and it could be a really dangerous unit.

The challenge will be finding a way past the program’s substantial offseason departures. Adding transfers like Carr and Demir is nice, but it’s hard to see either matching the contributions of players like Coffey and Murphy, let alone both. Minnesota has a lot of pieces to replace this year and many of those were really good players. It’s unfair to expect a player like Coffey on campus every year.

So, can Minnesota get it done? It’s possible, but the offseason departures look like they might be just a bit too much to overcome this year. Expect a short rebuild and for things to take off again in the 2020-’21 season.

Big Ten Prediction: 12th Place