It helps to have a deep bench in the conference tournament format that forces teams to play three, four or even five games in as many days to win a championship.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers, however, are doubling down on their stars playing heavy minutes. It worked Thursday night against Penn State as Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer willed the Gophers to a 77-72 overtime win. Coffey played 44:34 seconds out of a possible 45, Murphy didn’t miss a second, and McBrayer played 44:03.
All three have seen a minutes increase in the final stretch of the season as head coach Richard Pitino has kept his bench short despite losing Eric Curry to a foot injury. Pitino has only sparingly played freshman Jarvis Omersa, sophomore Isaiah Washington and junior Michael Hurt throughout the conference campaign.
“It’s not the NBA, it’s college basketball,” said Pitino before the tournament when asked specifically about Coffey’s minutes. “We don’t play as many games as they do, so it doesn’t matter as much.”
Coffey has played 203 out of 205 minutes over the last five games, exiting only for brief breathers. Prior to that, he had only exceeded 37 minutes once this year.
Murphy, who’s done a better job of staying out of foul trouble, has played 37 or more minutes in each of the last five after doing that only once before on the season.
McBrayer has averaged 37 minutes over the last five, up from his season average of 31.6.
Pitino also played his top players big minutes during their conference tournament and NCAA Tournament games during the 2016-17 season.
“This time of year you stay fresh, prepared, but also make sure that their legs are rested,” said Pitino.
After a grueling victory over Penn State, the Gophers will try to bounce back against a rested Purdue team that hasn’t played since Saturday. Matz Stockman was Minnesota’s leader off the bench Thursday with four points in 25 minutes, while Brock Stull logged three points and 13 minutes in the win.
Washington’s removal from the rotation has raised questions about the sophomore’s standing with Pitino, but the head coach insists the point guard is healthy and ready to contribute.
“You’ve got to be ready, and that’s the way it works,” said Pitino. “When your number’s called, you’ve got to do everything you possibly can to help the team win. … You don’t really plan it out as much as you think. The game will dictate who you play.”
Minnesota beat Purdue on March 5 and lost to them on Feb. 3. The Boilermakers enter the tournament as the No. 2 seed, led by Carsen Edwards and his 23.4 points per game average.