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2020-’21 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 2020-’21 season.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Minnesota David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020-’21 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2020-’21 ‘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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To those who read this site regularly, this is probably well known.

But the Big Ten has truly become one of the nation’s premier basketball conferences.

Over the last decade or so, the league has become deeper, more balanced, and more nationally relevant than anytime in its history. The Big Ten has grown from solid to nationally elite, ranking as KenPom’s best conference four times over the last decade and the second-best league two other times. Both are great marks for a league formerly known as mediocre.

But while the growth has been great for Big Ten fans, BTN subscribers, and fans of great basketball, it’s also come with a few tradeoffs. In particular, navigating Big Ten play has become tremendously difficult. Teams can no longer skate through large portions of January and February without playing a quality opponent. Every night is a battle. And when a team does get lucky enough to catch a “break” on the schedule, it’s usually followed by a whopper of an opponent shortly thereafter. Even getting above .500 in conference play has become difficult, which is something hardly anyone would have said a decade ago.

And this was certainly the case last season. The Big Ten ranked first nationally in conference efficiency and was as deep as ever. The conference finished the season with 12 teams ranked in KenPom’s top 40, including seven in the top 25. Per KenPom’s projections, 10 teams would have made the NCAA Tournament had the postseason been played. It was the deepest Big Ten fans have seen in recent memory, and perhaps ever. After all, roughly 86 percent of the conference finished in KenPom’s top 40, which was a 43 percent (!!!) increase from the year before when the league sent eight teams to the NCAA Tournament. It was an all-time great year for the league.

But as I repeatedly wrote during the season, somebody was going to bear the brunt of all that success. Even if two teams playing each other are great, someone has to lose. It’s the nature of the game. There’s always going to be a winner and a loser. Somebody was going to slip up and suffer the consequences of an absolutely brutal slate. And in a season with no margin for error, some respectable team was going to suffer.

Unfortunately for Gopher fans, it was Minnesota.

Despite finishing the season with pretty impressive metrics, Minnesota slogged its way to a 15-16 overall record and an 8-12 mark in league play. The Gophers finished 27th on KenPom and probably would have been a serious NCAA contender in an ordinary year.

The schedule ended up being too much to overcome for Richard Pitino and staff. We’ll get into more of that below, but it makes for a really interesting transition to this season. Minnesota’s record and success in Big Ten play last season would make you think last season was a rebuilding one, but it really wasn’t. The team was there, it just wasn’t quite good enough to hold up against a ridiculously deep conference.

And this all makes the expectations game really interesting this season. If the team’s quality was strong, but the results weren’t there, is it reasonable to expect improvement? After all, star big man Daniel Oturu is now gone and he was a big part of the team’s success last season. It’s hard to answer that question with certainty, which should make this season even more interesting, especially with some fans getting a bit restless with Pitino’s tenure.

Let’s dive into things.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse’s season preview post for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, make sure to check out the site’s podcast preview of the Gophers, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and The Daily Gopher breaking down Minnesota’s roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2019-’20 Season Performance

  • Record: 15-16 (8-12)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #27
  • NET Rating: #42
  • Postseason Appearance: N/A (Cancelled)

We’ve already touched on a lot of this above, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better example of a team getting screwed by its schedule than last year’s Minnesota squad. The Gophers were a solid team and played like it for most of the season. And while the record might not have been there, Minnesota’s statistical profile was there. If you don’t believe me, let’s just dive into some KenPom metrics.

Minnesota finished last season ranked 27th nationally on KenPom and with a team efficiency rating of +17.83. Here’s how that compares to some recent Big Ten teams:

  • 2019-’20 - Minnesota - +17.83
  • 2019-’20 - Rutgers - +17.72 — Projected NCAA Tournament Appearance
  • 2019-’20 - Illinois - +17.23 — Projected NCAA Tournament Appearance
  • 2019-’20 - Indiana - +15.73 — Projected NCAA Tournament Appearance
  • 2015-’16 - Wisconsin - +16.55 — NCAA Tournament Appearance (S16)
  • 2018-’19 - Iowa - +16.02 — NCAA Tournament Appearance (R32)
  • 2016-’17 - Maryland - +14.34— NCAA Tournament Appearance (R64)
  • 2016-’17 - Northwestern - +15.81 — NCAA Tournament Appearance (R32)
  • 2016-’17 - Michigan State - +15.51 — -- NCAA Tournament Appearance (R32)
  • 2018-’19 - Minnesota - +14.35 — NCAA Tournament Appearance (R32)
  • 2015-’16 - Michigan - +14.15 — NCAA Tournament First Four (R64)

We know every season is different and it’s dangerous to buy too much into advanced stats, but that’s a wild set of ratings there. It features a variety of teams with weaker statistical profiles than last year’s Minnesota squad who achieved notable success. And I didn’t even have to set any wild parameters to find them. That’s just over the last four years.

All told, that group includes 10 Big Ten teams that made the NCAAs with a lower KenPom rating than last year’s Minnesota squad. And many of them didn’t just make the field, they made it comfortably and did well once they made the cut. For example, last year’s Illinois team was a projected seven seed and Wisconsin made the Sweet 16 in 2016 with a + 16.55 rating, which is well below where last year’s Gophers finished.

That list should send the message loud and clear. The schedule dictated the results for last year’s Minnesota team. The Gophers ranked third nationally in strength of schedule and it’s easy to see why. Minnesota faced seven top 150 opponents in non-conference play and played a rigorous Big Ten slate afterward. And if you need further evidence regarding Minnesota’s schedule, just look at the team’s 16 losses:

  • 11/9 - vs No. 36 Oklahoma (71-62)
  • 11/12 - at No. 25 Butler (64-56)
  • 11/15 - at No. 114 Utah (73-69)
  • 11/29 - No. 94 DePaul (73-68)
  • 12/9 - at No. 23 Iowa (72-52)
  • 1/2 - at No. 24 Purdue (83-78 OT)
  • 1/9 - at No. 7 Michigan State (74-58)
  • 1/19 - at No. 28 Rutgers (64-56)
  • 1/26 - No. 7 Michigan State (70-52)
  • 1/30 - at No. 30 Illinois (59-51)
  • 2/8 - at No. 26 Penn State (83-77)
  • 2/16 - No. 23 Iowa (58-55)
  • 2/19 - No. 34 Indiana (68-56)
  • 2/26 - No. 11 Maryland (74-73)
  • 3/1 - at No. 22 Wisconsin (71-69)
  • 3/4 - at No. 34 Indiana (72-67)

Of Minnesota’s 16 losses last season, 15 came against top 100 KenPom opponents, 14 came against top 50 opponents, and eight against top 25 opponents. Many of those losses also came by tight margins. I’ve taken the liberty of bolding games lost by 10 points or fewer above. As you can see, it’s the vast majority of the list. Most simply put, this wasn’t a case of Minnesota blowing winnable games or losing at home. These were tight losses against quality opponents. It’s an absolutely brutal way for a season to unfold.

Fortunately, there were some high points along the way. Minnesota knocked off Clemson and Oklahoma State in non-conference play, swept Ohio State during league play, and beat quality Michigan and Wisconsin teams as well. Conversely, the three early season losses in non-conference play and the missed opportunities against teams like Indiana, Iowa, and Penn State late in the season will be tough moments for fans to remember.

Individual statistical leaders were Marcus Carr, Gabe Kalscheur, and Daniel Oturu. Carr led the team in minutes and assists. Kalscheur led the team in steals. Oturu led the team in points, rebounds, blocks, and total win shares.

2. Offseason Exits

Minnesota’s efforts to build on last season will be complicated by some significant offseason departures. The team is losing six players from last year’s roster in Alihan Demir, Bryan Greenlee, Michael Hurt, Daniel Oturu, Brady Rudrud, and Payton Willis. That group includes the team’s best player, two other starters, and a few more depth options. Obviously, Pitino will have his work cut out with those kind of departures.

The biggest departure is unquestionably Oturu. After a decent, but not great freshman season in Minneapolis, Oturu’s numbers exploded as a sophomore. He ended up averaging 20.1 points and 11.3 rebounds per game last season and became one of the Big Ten’s best players and a legitimate All-American caliber center. And a result of that improvement, he played a huge part in Minnesota’s production last season. He was third in the league in percentage of minutes played and fifth in percentage of offensive possessions used. More simply stated, a big hunk of the offense is walking out the door with him.

Along with Oturu, Minnesota will also be losing two starters in Demir and Willis. Neither was exceptional, but they were productive. Each finished with an offensive rating over 100 and played more than 60 percent of the team’s minutes last season. Their departures will leave a void on the wing to fill. Perhaps the lone “break” from these departures is that Demir saw his minutes reduced as the season continued as the bench emerged. As such, fans will hope he will be more easily replaced.

None of the final three departures stand out. Hurt played the most, but failed to even play 20 percent of the team’s minutes last season. Greenlee and Rudrud also sparingly saw playing time. Notably, Hurt’s department is particularly meaningful since he’s another forward walking out the door. That will put even more pressure on the team’s returning underclassmen like Isaiah Ihnen and Tre’ Williams to perform.

Minnesota still brings back enough to do some damage, even with these departures. However, there’s no sugarcoating some of these losses. Oturu was an absolute monster and the kind of player that comes around a program once a decade. Losing him is going to leave a mark, especially when the team loses two other starters and a depth option. Pitino and his staff will have their hands full.

3. New Additions

This season, the Gophers will be adding three new recruits and three transfers. The recruits are Jamal Mashburn, Jr., Martice Mitchell, and David Mutaf. According to 247Sports, all three are three-star prospects. The site also lists Mashburn and Mutaf as combo guards and Mitchell as a power forward.

From a ratings perspective, Mashburn is the recruit to watch. He is ranked 130rd nationally and is listed at 6-foot-0 and 160 pounds. He comes out of New Hampshire and figures to be a dangerous player in the lane for the Gophers moving forward. The question will be how he holds up on the defensive end early in his career and whether his outside shooting numbers make him dangerous enough to keep defenses honest. Still, he has plenty of upside. The other two prospects are rated a bit lower, but both landed in the top 200 nationally. Like Mashburn, they’ll likely be depth options in year one.

The biggest additions come from the transfer market. Minnesota is adding Drake transfer Liam Robbins and Western Michigan transfer Brandon Johnson upfront and Utah transfer Both Gach in the backcourt. Robbins and Johnson are eligible immediately and Gach has applied for a waiver. At the time this preview is written, experts believe all three will be eligible to play for the Gophers this season.

None of these three are surefire All-Big Ten candidates, but they’re solid and experienced options with enough talent to compete in the Big Ten. And for a team losing three starters, that’s great news. Robbins is expected to take many of the minutes left open by Oturu, Johnson should be in the rotation on the wing to help make up for Demir and Willis’ departures, and Gach should get minutes in the backcourt if eligible. It wouldn’t be shocking to see at least two of these three earn early starting roles.

The most important of these three, though, is Robbins. Minnesota has a clear void at center with Oturu gone and needs someone who can deliver 15 to 25 minutes a game effectively. Robbins should be able to do that. He was one of the best rebounders in the Missouri Valley Conference last season and one of Drake’s most relied upon offensive contributors as well. He’s not going to be Oturu, but he should be able to grab enough minutes to allow players like Sam Freeman and Martice Mitchell time to develop.

All told, Minnesota is adding an intriguing set of newcomers. There’s no bonafide star in the group, but there are easily three to five players that can be relied upon this season. And with some proven players like Carr returning, there’s a pretty good haul for Pitino and company.

4. Points of Optimism

While Minnesota might enter this season with middling expectations, there are some reasons to be optimistic about the team’s chances this year. In fact, the Gophers have a chance to be a lot better than people expect. Minnesota returns a core from a team better than most believe, have a potential star in Carr, and are adding a variety of pieces to fill in for the team’s deficits. Those are all things that generally suggest success.

Let’s start with the biggest thing most are overlooking. And while this might seem like a rehash of what’s been written above, it needs to be included here. Minnesota wasn’t your typical 15-16 team last season. The Gophers were a solid team that got screwed by an incredibly difficult schedule. And because of that, we can’t view Minnesota as a typical team coming off a 15-16 season. We have to think of the Gophers as coming off a season where the team had a top 30 profile and consistently competed in the nation’s best conference. And that’s not a bad spot to be in.

And while Minnesota loses a lot from last season (noted above), most of the core returns. Carr and Kalscheur return in the backcourt, Ihnen is back on the wing, and most of the team’s depth options return as well. And since this team was actually pretty solid last season, that’s encouraging. Players who contributed off the bench last year will now have their chance to make a difference in the lineup. It’s what you expect from good programs.

Minnesota also has a potential star in Carr. He averaged 15.4 points, 6.5 assists, and 5.3 rebounds per game last season and his numbers should only rise with Oturu heading to the NBA. He could very well finish with the Big Ten’s highest usage rate this season. If so, he should have the statistical numbers to make the All-Big Ten team. And as we know about college basketball, having a star player is immensely valuable. It often is the difference in close games and challenging contests on the road. Minnesota should have one in Carr.

Fans also have to be excited about all the new pieces coming to town. The Gophers are adding three solid freshmen prospects and three transfers who are expected to play immediately. And while the team is losing three starters, Demir and Willis were not elite players. They were decent Big Ten players, but are certainly replaceable. And with so many new pieces, it seems like Minnesota could do that (and then some) this season. In some ways, the roster could be deeper and more talented than it was last season.

There’s certainly not enough coming back to Minneapolis to reasonably discuss championship hopes, but there are some solid pieces for Pitino to work with. The key will be getting the newcomers on campus and figuring out how they fit into Minnesota’s lineup.

5. Points of Concern

By now, we’ve spent more than enough times discussing Minnesota’s bizarre 2019-’20 season. The Gophers were really good statistically, but didn’t have the record to match it. I credit much of the team’s unusual profile to the Big Ten’s incredible depth and talent last season. And it’s why I’m probably higher on Minnesota than many others.

However, we also need to at least acknowledge Minnesota’s underwhelming finish last season as well. The team went 15-16, lost six of its last nine games, and 9 of its final 11 games against top 130 opponents. Minnesota basically went winless after beating Wisconsin on February 5th and blew a plethora of winnable games during the season, including games against underwhelming opponents like DePaul, Indiana, and Utah. Most of the team’s losses came against good teams, but it wasn’t all a murderer’s row.

And that’s the tricky part here. If Minnesota plays looks like its statistical profile (27th nationally) last season, there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful about this year. However, if the Gophers are closer to the team’s record (15-16 overall), things could get rough. After all, Minnesota finished with a losing record and now loses its best player and another starter. The Gophers also may or may not have immediate help on the way. Yes, some of the transfers look encouraging, but transfers are always a mixed bag. They’re usually more underwhelming than most expect. And it’s not unreasonable to think that could happen with Minnesota’s additions this year.

The loss of Oturu also can’t be undersold here. He was an All-American candidate and one of the Big Ten’s best players last season. That’s the kind of player who comes around a program like Minnesota once a decade. You don’t just replace him overnight. And while player like Robbins have potential, he’s more likely to just be a generic starter than an Oturu duplicate. And if Minnesota plays more like it’s record than its statistical profile from last season, you’re suddenly talking about a team with a losing record losing its biggest contributor with no obvious replacement. That’s usually a recipe for disaster.

Fans also have to be concerned about some of the upside for the team’s returners. Carr seemed pretty well maxed out last season, Kalscheur regressed as a sophomore, and Minnesota isn’t adding a loaded 2020 class. It’s also possible the team regresses significantly from last year’s mark without Oturu. And considering the team had a 15-16 overall record, that’s not an exciting thought. It will be up to Pitino and staff to find some new contributors to fill in.

6. Top Player

Minnesota’s team performance might have been mixed last year, but it had more than enough production at the top end of its roster. Oturu performed at an All-American level and Carr was great in his debut in Minneapolis. The two formed one of the better duos in last year’s Big Ten.

And with Oturu’s departure to the NBA, Carr is clearly going to be Minnesota’s best player this season. Other players could surprise, but it’s hard to see anybody outperforming Carr’s numbers this season. He was a volume scorer and a great passer last season and that should continue this time around. Here’s what I wrote about Carr in our top 25 player countdown earlier this year:

Carr was Minnesota’s primary offensive initiator last season. While Oturu was Minnesota’s best player, it was Carr who got most things going. Carr had similar usage numbers to Oturu, played far more minutes (93.7 percent of the team’s minutes), and also ranked fourth in the conference in assist rate. If the Gophers were doing some offensively, it was likely came from something Carr started.

Along with initiating so much offensively, Carr was one of the Big Ten’s best players at getting in the lane and converting from there. He drew a ton of fouls from opponents and converted consistently from the free throw line. Carr also really came on as a three-point shooter during conference play, hitting 38.2 percent from deep against Big Ten opponents.

. . .

Expect Carr to be pretty similar to how he was last season. He’s going to play a ton, initiate things offensively, and will score in a variety of ways. Carr should have a serious shot at All-Big Ten first team status if things go well.

However, hitting his ceiling will depend significantly on the players around Carr. He needs quality shooters for his passing skills to be productive and to keep the lane open. It will be interesting to see how things go.

Other potential contenders are Kalscheur, true freshman Jamal Mashburn, and rising sophomore Isaiah Ihnen. All three have some upside and could make some noise if they take steps forward this season. But as noted above, it would be pretty surprising if any of the three outperformed Carr.

7. 2020-’21 Schedule Breakdown

  • TBA - Unknown
  • 12/8 - Boston College
  • TBA - Unknown

Normally, I would use this space to dive into Minnesota’s schedule, the biggest games on the slate this year, and some expectations for how the team should perform. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the erratic scheduling changes, we don’t know much about the schedule at the moment. In fact, the only game officially scheduled right now is the team’s home game against Boston College in early December as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. This makes it pretty hard to give many thoughts on the slate.

However, we do have some general ideas on how things might look this season. Minnesota will have a reduced non-conference slate and an intriguing matchup against Boston College. We also know the arenas will almost certainly have reduced capacity, if anyone is able to attend at all. That’s going to make for a bizarre experience in Big Ten play, which has led the nation for years in fan attendance. Expect road games against teams like Indiana, Michigan State, and Wisconsin to be much easier this time around.

As for Minnesota, expect another battle against a brutal Big Ten slate. It will be important for the Gophers to do work in non-conference play to overcome that.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Marcus Carr (Rs. Jr.) - 95%
  • SG: Gabe Kalscheur (Jr.) - 85%
  • SF: Both Gach (Jr.) - 75%
  • PF: Isaiah Ihnen (So.) - 55%
  • C: Liam Robbins (Jr.) - 90%

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

With so many players coming in and out the door, Minnesota’s lineup is a bit uncertain at the moment. Sure, we know players like Carr and Kalscheur will start, but it’s hard to feel extremely confident about anyone else. The Gophers will likely rely on a handful of new additions in the form of transfers and new recruits. As such, Minnesota’s probably going to feel a bit like a “new look” team this season.

In the backcourt, expect Carr and Kalscheur to lock things down. The two are arguably Minnesota’s best returning players and seem like safe bets to play significant minutes. The only real question is about who grabs the reserve minutes behind them. Tre Williams should get most of the reserve time and freshmen Mashburn and Mutaf will also likely see the court for segments. Additionally, Minnesota will have the option to play Gach at the two when Kalscheur hits the bench if the other options aren’t producing sufficiently.

But unlike the backcourt, the wing looks like a major question mark. Gach had a solid profile at Utah and seems likely to lock down a starting spot alongside Kalscheur. However, it’s anyone’s guess who will play alongside him. Johnson arrives as a redshirt senior and it’s difficult to imagine he came to Minneapolis to ride the bench. Ihnen should also be in the mix after a decent freshman campaign. However, nobody seems to have a massive edge, so expect a lot of rotating.

Another uncertainty on the wing is Eric Curry. He’s shown some great potential earlier in his career, but is coming off an ACL injury. It’s anyone’s guess how he looks this season. With all the uncertainty, I decided to go with Ihnen. However, it’s going to be a spot in flux for much of the year. Expect Pitino to try out a handful of different options there and for the minutes to vary on a nightly basis.

Upfront, Robbins seems like a pretty safe bet to start. The team does return a big man with experience in Sam Freeman, but he only played a few minutes all season. The Gophers are also adding Mitchell. However, it’s hard to see either Freeman or Mitchell beating out Robbins. Unfortunately, regardless of who starts, it’s going to be a major step back from Oturu.

If Minnesota can find a player or two on the wing, there’s a lot to like about this lineup. It’s just going to take a few players surprising. Otherwise, the wing and frontcourt could be a bit rough.

9. Outside Perspective From Bryan Steedman

“Minnesota has been inconsistent the past four seasons and things won’t get any easier this year after losing standout Daniel Oturu to the NBA Draft. The Gophers weren’t necessarily bad, especially when you considered how difficult of a schedule they faced. The problem with Minnesota last season was they couldn’t win close games, losing 12 games by single digits.

The Gophers will hope transfers Liam Robbins and Brandon Johnson can solidify a thin frontcourt. Marcus Carr and Gabe Kalscheur anchor an experienced backcourt that should provide plenty of offensive firepower, though the team will need to improve on their 33.7% three point shooting percentage. Minnesota will miss Oturu inside, but should have a relatively talented and experienced roster. If Richard Pitino can help his team figure out how to win close games they should have more success this year. That’s a big if, though.” - Bryan Steedman.

10. Overall Season Outlook

The last few seasons have been bizarre in Minneapolis. The program has largely swung between good and terrible under Pitino. Minnesota finished with a losing record in 2017-’18, bounced back with an NCAA Tournament appearance the next year, before returning to a mark below .500 last season. However, the advanced stats loved the Gophers, ranking the team 27th nationally. That’s the highest mark for Minnesota under Pitino’s leadership.

But with key players like Oturu walking out the door, what should fans expect this year?

Some regression seems like a reasonable assumption. Minnesota isn’t going to finish 27th on KenPom this season without someone really surprising. And with a brutal Big Ten waiting (yet again), it’s hard to feel tremendously optimistic about the Gophers. The team has enough to do some damage, but probably not enough to finish near the top of the league. Much will be determined by the newcomers, who are expected to contribute significantly.

Big Ten Prediction: 11th Place