Dupree McBrayer’s right leg was in so much pain, he couldn’t practice between games last season.
The junior gutted through an early-season infection that dropped him 19 pounds and a stress reaction in the same leg that made him ineffective on the court many nights, a disappointing step after an encouraging sophomore campaign.
Now noticeably healthier, the senior McBrayer is primed to get back to slashing, shooting and rediscovering the form that made him a key cog in the 2016-17 tournament team.
Head coach Richard Pitino said Monday that when McBrayer returned from tending to a family issue the previous week, he had one of his better practices of the year. That carried over into Tuesday’s game as McBrayer delivered 17 points on 5 of 6 three-point shooting in Minnesota’s season-opening 104-76 win over Omaha.
“He was hobbling last year,” said Pitino, “could hardly walk, could hardly practice, so you’re not going to get in a flow offensively if you do not practice. I thought he was terrific today. He’s taking good shots. I think when he’s healthy he’s a really, really good guard. It’s just last year was a perfect storm of some bad things happening at once.”
McBrayer saw his shooting splits regress across the board, dropping from 55/41/74 in 2016-17 to 36/34/68 a year ago. He only scored in double figures once in the final seven games as the stress on his leg mounted.
Now unencumbered by the leg sleeve and boot that were a regular part of his ensemble last year, McBrayer can make his mark as one of just two contributing seniors that have played under Pitino the last four years.
“I’m extremely happy,” said McBrayer. “I’m having a lot of fun. I’m smiling, just like I was two years ago, playing with all the confidence right now. Just getting me confident early is just a big boost.”
Healthy Coffey, too
McBrayer and Amir Coffey are two of the most trusted members of the Gophers’ leadership core. And they have quite a bit in common.
McBrayer started as a shy, braces-wearing freshman who began his Gophers career tentatively. Same for Coffey, now a junior, who Pitino used to jokingly bombard with questions during meetings because he was too shy to answer.
Coffey joined McBrayer in enduring injury tribulations in 2017-18. Coffey missed most of the conference season with a shoulder injury while McBrayer attempted to play through his leg pain.
With clean bills of health the two complemented each other perfectly Tuesday night — McBrayer spotting up on the perimeter and Coffey attacking the rim.
When the Gophers briefly fell behind in the first half, Coffey scored 11 points within a 30-9 run that expanded the lead to 19 at halftime.
“When he decides to be aggressive, he’s a totally different person, so we need that Amir all the time,” McBrayer said.
Minnesota plans to have Coffey handling the ball more this season, which should help him tap into the alpha mentality that got him on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team two seasons ago. He played three different positions against Omaha and finished with 18 points in 24 minutes.
“I think Amir, when he’s going downhill to his left hand, look out,” Pitino said.
Coffey also finished with four of the Gophers’ 28 assists.
“He’s tall, he sees over defenders,” said McBrayer. “He makes passes that a shorter point guard wouldn’t make.”
Except there was a shorter point guard making passes Tuesday night. Sophomore Isaiah Washington had 11 of them, a career high.
Washington came off the bench in Minnesota’s exhibition game last Thursday and again Tuesday night, but if he keeps distributing the ball as well as he did against Omaha, he could find himself taking back some of Coffey’s point guard reps.
“That’s the good thing about if you have good players they put you in a bind,” said Pitino. “What do you do with Isaiah? If Isaiah’s gonna play that way, he’s gotta play.
“Those are good problems to have.”