If the Minnesota Golden Gophers are going to have any shot of playing a Final Four in their home city next April, they’ll need a 180 turnaround from last year’s injury- and suspension-riddled disappointment that precipitated another Gophers-free postseason.
The 2017-18 roster is already getting reshaped with two departures by bench players Jamir Harris and Davonte Fitzgerald.
But could those losses actually turn into gains with some strong recruiting?
Backtracking, the 2016-17 Gophers were proof that turnarounds can happen quickly. The previous year’s team finished 8-23, added rim enforcer Reggie Lynch, freshman wing Amir Coffey, grad transfer Akeem Springs and reserve forward Eric Curry to their rotation and became a 24-10 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Will next year’s Gophers add four of their top seven players to the roster? Seems unlikely.
But they’ve certainly got room to add pieces with Fitzgerald opting to become a grad transfer and Harris leaving after his freshman season, likely because his primary recruiter, assistant coach Kimani Young, joined Connecticut’s staff.
It’s hard to say that their departures are massive blows. Both were 13-14 minute per game players, both shot below 40 percent from the floor and below 35 percent from 3, and neither offered much on the defensive end.
But even fringe contributors can be useful, especially a player like Harris whose shooting prowess gave the Gophers a dimension they lacked last season (10th in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting). Minnesota learned quickly in 2017-18 how fast things can go south with a shallow bench. There were nights when walk-ons, transfers, injured players and suspended players outnumbered healthy players.
Remember Ahmad Gilbert? He was considered an afterthought after playing 5 minutes per game and transferring following the 2016-17 season, but his experience could have come in handy to help the decimated lineup last season after it lost Lynch, Coffey, Curry and McBrayer.
In essence, the loss of Harris and Fitzgerald is only quantifiable once Richard Pitino decides how to fill those spots and how those players perform. But it won’t require much statistical impact to find an upgrade.
Pitino secured transfer guard Payton Willis from Vanderbilt last week, but Willis will be required to sit out next season, leaving the Gophers with two scholarships for next year, likely to be used on grad transfers that can play immediately.
Minnesota badly needs guard and wing depth. At the moment, to-be sophomore Isaiah Washington is the team’s only point guard, but the club has been linked to Nick Norton, a potential grad transfer from UAB who averaged 7.6 points, 4.8 assists last season and has shot 37 percent from 3-point range over 464 career attempts.
The real prize would be Keyshawn Woods out of Wake Forest, who averaged double figures each of the last two seasons and is a career 43 percent 3-point marksman, but reports indicate he is interested in powerhouse Virginia.
There will be room for next year’s lauded local freshman class to play, but they’ll have to earn the responsibility. Gabe Kalscheur out of DeLaSalle should be a rangy shooter on the wing, but the adjustment for shooters to Big Ten basketball can take some time, as Michael Hurt can attest. Jarvis Omersa, out of Orono, might be the most athletic incoming Gopher, but his shot will need work, and being a tweener at 6-foot-6, 225, he’ll have to build up the strength to guard 3s and 4s at the next level.
Hero from last month’s Minnesota State High School Basketball Tournament Daniel Oturu will likely play plenty at center, but if Pitino wants to acclimate him slowly, the Gophers should have depth at the 5 with Curry offering flexibility down low, as well as transfer Matz Stockman, the 7-foot Norwegian who transferred from Louisville before last season.
All things considered, the Gophers’ bench will not be familiar next season. With Harris and Fitzgerald gone, and Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou graduating, only Michael Hurt will return to the rotation, and he may have to fend off Omersa for minutes.
Factor in three freshmen, the return of Curry from injury and the addition of perhaps two grad transfers, and the Gophers’ roster will look vastly different, particularly beyond the starting five.
This is a good thing, regardless of whether some of the new pieces are unproven.
The Gophers’ bench last season — even when the team was intact — was its Achilles heel, especially on nights when Washington wasn’t finding the basket. Besides Washington, no regular bench contributor averaged over 4.0 points per game last season despite a wealth of opportunities that arose when roughly one-third of the team went down.
A new rotation should be welcomed after last year’s dismal results.