DES MOINES, Iowa — There was no players-only meeting. No emotional outburst. No rousing pre-game speech.
Nobody told Amir Coffey the Minnesota Golden Gophers needed his best to climb out of their season’s low point. Whatever subliminal message was sent to the Gophers junior, it was ostensibly well-received.
Over the last seven games, Coffey has averaged 23 points and six rebounds, pulling the Gophers back from the precipice of a lost season to win five out of seven games, including two Big Ten tournament victories and a first-round NCAA Tournament upset over Louisville.
“Amir’s been pretty locked in over the last month,” Pitino said matter-of-factly after Minnesota’s big win in Des Moines.
Before his recent string of excellence, Coffey had scored six and eight points, respectively, in back-to-back Big Ten losses that dropped the team to 7-10 in conference. Against Michigan he shot a dismal 2 of 15, and his performance at Rutgers wasn’t much better at 4 of 12.
For the Gophers to make a postseason push, Coffey needed to deliver more. He and Pitino watched some film, went over some technical adjustments Coffey could make on his dribble drives, and Coffey took it from there, scoring 31 points against Northwestern to resuscitate himself, and the team.
“I just knew we had to stay the course and keep playing,” said Coffey on Friday. “We didn’t really change anything. … We just kept playing hard.”
“He’s a big reason why they’re playing so well.”
For a six-game stretch between Feb. 6 and Feb. 24, Coffey scored just 9.2 points per game, shot 31 percent from the floor, 26 percent from 3 and 56 percent from the line. Perhaps that’s why the sudden 180 shocked the Gophers back to life. Over his last seven he’s upped his scoring average by 14 points per game, shooting 51/37/77 in that time, a discernible difference that’s precipitated Coffey’s finest stretch of basketball at the U of M and keyed a series of upsets in postseason action.
As Coffey goes, oftentimes the Gophers go. In conference play when he scored 11 points or less, Minnesota went 1-7. They went 10-5 when he scored a dozen or more. The only time he was held to single-digit shot attempts over the last 22 games came in Minnesota’s 79-55 loss against their next tourney opponent, Michigan State, who is full of respect for Coffey’s transformation.
“He’s a big reason why they’re playing so well,” said Matt McQuad, a Spartans junior who may end up guarding Coffey in the teams’ second-round game.
The Hopkins product scored just four points against Michigan State when the teams played on Feb. 9, but Spartans head coach Tom Izzo says he was “a shadow of the player he is right now.”
“I recruited Amir Coffey,” Izzo said. “I know how good he is. Unfortunately for us, he might be playing at the best level.”
Coffey’s holistic development has rounded him into a more complete player and personality for the Gophers. He started out as a freshman that occasionally had trouble asserting himself on the floor and got ribbed by his coach for showing little emotion.
He’s still an even-keeled character in front of microphones and cameras, but teammates talk about his underrated sense of humor behind the scenes. On the court, he’s no longer hesitant to assert himself in the offense, nor is he afraid to scream, flex or play to the crowd after a clutch 3-pointer or acrobatic finish.
“He’s been very aggressive,” freshman Gabe Kalscheur told Zone Coverage. “He’s had that scoring mentality. He wants to win just as bad as everyone else.”
“He’s quietly a fierce, fierce competitor,” said Pitino.
Nobody on the Gophers has had a bigger workload than Coffey, who’s played more minutes per game than any guard in the country since the calendar turned to March. With the exception about the team’s lopsided loss to Michigan in the Big Ten semi-finals that emptied the bench early, Coffey has played 39 or more minutes in seven of the last eight games. He completed the full 40 minutes against Louisville in an 18-point, six-rebound performance.
“He’s quietly a fierce, fierce competitor.”
Again, there was no conversation about upping his minutes. Just an unspoken understanding the Gophers needed the max from their most talented player.
“I think it’s something that [Pitino] just tried out,” Coffey said. “It was tough, at first, just getting my fatigue right. But after a while I kind of got used to it.”
As the Gophers surged to a 10-point win over Louisville, Coffey turned several times to see his father, Richard, in the stands. The junior may be destined to follow in his dad’s footsteps and play professionally if he builds on his current seven-game stretch over the coming year — provided he doesn’t attempt to go pro over the summer. Even the mere possibility of Coffey contemplating the draft is a testament to the strides he’s made. He could be the first Gophers draft pick since Kris Humphries in 2004.
That would surely be a point of pride for Coffey, whose family ties and hometown connection to the university go a long way towards explaining his Herculean surge in the month of March. True to form, he prefers talking about the name on the front of jersey more than the one on the back.
“Just being from Minnesota and having it across your chest winning an NCAA Tournament game,” said Coffey, “especially in front of all our fans that made that drive for us, it was a special feeling.”