The Golden Gophers defense came to play last Thursday at Wisconsin, shutting out the Badgers for over nine minutes in the first half.
Minnesota’s offense, however, was laboring.
With Minnesota leading just 14-11 after all that defensive work, it felt like the Badgers had gotten a reprieve following their early shooting slump. That’s when Amir Coffey seized control of the game, outscoring Wisconsin 15-3 by himself before halftime.
A 13-foot jumper off a pick-and-roll with Jordan Murphy; a pull-up 3-pointer against lengthy defender Ethan Happ as the shot clock wound down; a crossover dribble of Brad Davison, followed by a neat floater in the lane; another 3-pointer from the top of the key; a five-foot twisting jumper in traffic. Mix in three free throws, and that was the Seven Minutes of Coffey; a dominant stretch of play that gave the Gophers a 15-point halftime lead and enough cushion to pull the 59-52 upset at Wisconsin.
“Just seeing him be aggressive, seeing him be the Amir we all know that he has the potential to be was something that was really encouraging to our guys,” said Murphy.
Coffey is the conference’s scoring leader in Big Ten games at 24 points per game. His 15.5 points per game overall through 14 games is a career best.
After losing point guard Nate Mason to graduation, failing to get a waiver for Pittsburgh transfer Marcus Carr and not yet feeling comfortable with sophomore Isaiah Washington, head coach Richard Pitino filled the point guard void with the 6-foot-8 Coffey, a mismatch nightmare for opposing defenses and a natural way to get the ball in the team’s most explosive player’s hands.
Pitino scoffs at those who question Coffey’s ability to run the offense as a non-traditional point guard.
“Why isn’t Amir [considered] the starting point guard? He brings the ball up the court,” Pitino said Monday. “If it was the older days when people were pressing as much — they’re not, though. So Amir is our starting point guard; he’s pretty good at it, and he can play multiple positions which we put him on the court. I always hear about the concerns of our team that we don’t have a point guard. That’s not my concern. Now there’s a lot of other things I have concerns with, but I think Amir has handled playing that position very well.”
Coffey’s potential has been evident since his fourth career game, when he scored 30 points as a freshman against St. John’s. His passivity, at times, has been the knock. Coffey attempted five or fewer field goals in five Big Ten games his freshman year, opting to make smart passes and refrain from interrupting the offensive flow. He still averaged 12.2 points per game that season and was named to the All-Freshman team. Coffey’s shoulder injury kept him out for most of the conference season as a sophomore, setting up a pivotal 2018-19 junior season where he needed to take the next step.
“I told him, ‘We do need you to score,'” said Pitino. “‘You are a good passer, you move the ball well and you know how to play, but we need you to be that option scoring the basketball,’ and he obviously showed that versus Wisconsin when some things offensively broke down, he was able to create, so we definitely need him to continue to be aggressive.”
Unlocking that assertiveness might be the difference between the Gophers finishing middle of the pack in the Big Ten and finishing in its top four. It also could be what puts Coffey firmly on the map as an NBA prospect.
Pitino has been needling Coffey with the reminder that college basketball analysts have been talking a lot about Murphy and other Big Ten prospects without uttering Coffey’s name.
“I think his goal is playing in the NBA,” said Pitino. “You don’t normally make the NBA unless you’re one of the better players in the league, so you’ve got to separate yourself as one of those. It’s not necessarily that there’s a desire for people to talk about you because he doesn’t care about that, but they talk about really good players, NBA prospects, and if you want to be that you’d better be mentioned, and he’s starting to be mentioned.”
Coffey’s length and defensive acumen could make him a useful NBA player if he continues to refine his shooting. His ability to attack, finish and absorb contact is already NBA ready. And his repertoire of mid-range release points knows no limits. Example: Coffey hit a critical jumper in the second half against the Badgers after leaving his feet with the intention to pass. He decided to shoot in mid-air.
“It’s stuff that I think he’s been doing since he was in high school, really. That’s at least what he tells me,” said Murphy. “I think he has a little knack for hitting shots like that and hitting some really tough shots, and that’s something that I think every team needs down the stretch.”
Tuesday the Gophers host Maryland in a huge Big Ten clash. The last time Coffey faced a conference foe at Williams Arena, he scored a career-high 32 against Nebraska. Not surprisingly, the Gophers are 2-0 in the Big Ten when Coffey goes alpha.
“He’s kind of,” said grad transfer Brock Stull, “literally looked unstoppable.”