There is a gleaming new court adorning the Williams Arena floor this season, an almost-jarring juxtaposition against the 90-year-old backdrop.
In a way the new monochromatic court represents a fresh start, wiping the slate clean of a forgettable 2017-18 that snowballed out of control as Reggie Lynch’s suspension (and eventual expulsion) along with injuries to Eric Curry, Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer and Nate Mason at various times left the Gophers struggling to field a Big Ten-worthy lineup in a season that was supposed to end in an NCAA Tournament run.
Now the Gophers hope to write, ahem… rewrite a redemption narrative.
There’s a clear connection to be drawn to the 2016-17 campaign, where the Gophers rebounded from an 8-23 mark, winning 16 more games and earning a 5 seed in the Big Dance.
Seniors Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer were on both those teams. Junior Amir Coffey and redshirt sophomore Eric Curry were freshmen on the resurgent 24-win group. All four are back this season hoping to breathe life into the Gophers for a second time in three seasons.
“Having that year was good for Amir, Eric and other guys that were here,” said Murphy, who earned Third Team All-Big Ten in 2016-17. “I think that having guys that are still here from that year, we definitely knows what it takes to win in this league, how losing plays out, how winning plays out in this league.”
Coffey was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year that season and wasted no time cracking the starting lineup. He missed most of the 2017-18 season with a shoulder injury that left Minnesota without one of its lengthy defenders and relentless attackers on offense.
“I feel like they’re both bounce-back years,” said Coffey, hoping this season resembles his freshman year. “I think we’re ready for it.”
Two years ago, Akeem Springs transferred from UW-Milwaukee and made 67 3-pointers for a Gophers team that desperately needed a shooter. This year, the UW-Milwaukee transfer is Brock Stull, who made 72 3s a year ago.
“Right before practice or something, [head coach Richard Pitino] kind of points out, ‘Guys, every person in here besides freshmen has been part of a really good team and a really bad team,'” Stull said. “Everyone in the room kind of knows what it feels like to be really bad and how great it is being really good. There’s kind of a mindset going into practice and going into this year — we know what that sick taste feels like in your mouth, and you just don’t want it again.”
But Pitino isn’t as eager to draw comparisons. The 2015-16 Gophers, that didn’t pick up a Big Ten win until Feb. 18, lacked high-end talent. Joey King, Carlos Morris and Kevin Dorsey were three of their top five scorers, while Murphy was still raw as a freshman. Last year’s team had the talent to win, but the talent couldn’t stay on the floor.
“There is a reason why we had a tough year,” said Pitino. “What I’ve got to get our guys to understand is, still use it as motivation. Don’t just say, ‘Oh, we know why we had a bad year,’ where three years ago when we had a tough year, we were young and close, and we felt like we could break through.
“Last year, to me, was a total fluke of bad luck after bad luck, so we’ve got to make sure that we don’t feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve got to move on. This season has nothing to do with last season. Just like my fourth year really had nothing to do with the year before.”
The impact of this year’s freshmen class may determine whether the Gophers can make another leap. Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur both started in an exhibition win over Minnesota-Duluth Thursday night, while Jarvis Omersa came off the bench. Oturu, especially, will be relied upon as Curry works his way back from minor knee surgery that may keep him out through the first two conference games in early December.
The three elder statesmen — McBrayer, Murphy and Coffey — understand the precedent the 2016-17 team set. And they expect nothing less than to do it again.
“I think I see a lot of that team in this team,” said Murphy, “having that chip on the shoulder, feeling a little bit disrespected is something that can really go a long ways this season.”
The Gophers dominated Division-II Minnesota-Duluth 109-53 in their final tune-up before the regular season begins on Nov. 6.
Oturu scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the start, while McBrayer (11 points, 4 of 5 FG) and point guard Isaiah Washington (18 points, 7 of 8 FG) looked sharp. The Gophers shot 67 percent as a team.
“They were flying up the court, doing a lot of good things,” said Pitino. “We were very, very unselfish. It was good. Got a lot out of it.”