It was clear within five minutes of the Golden Gophers’ Monday night scrimmage against Division-II Southwest Minnesota State: Fans should prepare to watch the Gophers launch the 3-ball.
Of Minnesota’s first 10 field-goal attempts, seven came from behind the 3-point line. By the end of their 73-48 win, they’d taken 21 — more than they attempted in 28 games a year ago.
“I think we are going to shoot a lot of 3s,” Pitino said. “I think we’re a pretty good shooting team. … We had counted eight challenged shots, and the goal is eight or below, and I think we got just at eight.”
The pace-and-space style of play has taken over professional basketball as big men continue to enhance their shooting range and move further and further out of the paint. While college basketball teams can still depend — and win — with traditional big men, the NBA ideals have a way of trickling down to the lower ranks.
The Gophers returned sophomore center Daniel Oturu, who will provide most of Minnesota’s muscle in 2019-20. But Pitino has a team of athletic wings around him that should be able to spread the floor like last year’s team couldn’t with its 307th-ranked three-point shooting attack.
“Definitely going to be shooting a lot more,” transfer Marcus Carr said at last week’s media day. “We’ve got more guys who can shoot the ball. Sometimes, depending on the lineup that’s going to be on the court, it could be 1 through 5, everybody can shoot. It’s definitely going to be a little different style of play.”
Carr was a 33% three-point shooter in his one year at Pittsburgh and went 1 of 2 Monday night from long range. He’s said he wants to shoot 40% for the Gophers this year.
“Just putting up shots every day,” he said. “Every day after practice me and Gabe [Kalscheur] get shots up. Obviously he’s the best shooter on our team. One of the best shooters in the country, shot 41 last year. Just taking little stuff from him, just working on my shot selection.”
Kalscheur’s breakout freshman season gives Minnesota an immediate outside threat that demands respect. His five three-point shots in the Gophers’ NCAA Tournament upset of Louisville earned him national recognition and a shoutout from NBA sharpshooter Trae Young. The DeLaSalle product wants to shoot 45% from downtown this year and jokingly scoffs at the notion that transfer Payton Willis is a better shooter than him.
“Lies,” he says. “He’s a good shooter, but I still beat him.”
Kalscheur was sometimes the lone wolf last year beyond the arc, so if Willis gives him a run for his money (he went 3 of 7 Monday night), that’s better for the Gophers. Last year Oturu stayed put in the paint, Jordan Murphy cemented his legacy as an all-time great but was not a skilled shooter, Dupree McBrayer dipped to 28% from 3 in his final season, and Amir Coffey shot a career-worst 30%. That brought a lot of attention Kalscheur’s way.
But the Gophers may be tougher to guard this year on the perimeter. Transfers Carr and Willis are shooting threats. Freshmen Tre Williams, Bryan Greenlee and Isaiah Ihnen have range. So does grad transfer Alihan Demir from Drexel, who may compete for the fifth starting spot.
The Gophers have to use that wing depth to make up for over 50% of last year’s field goal attempts that were taken by their three departed starters, and a large chunk of those will likely come from the outside.
“It’s going to help a lot, not just for me but the way our motion in our offense is going to be this year,” Kalscheur said. “Just opening up the floor, giving Dan some room down there. When Dan and all the other bigs get the ball down there it’s going to help the shooters spread out because they’re going to be focused with them down there and we have a lot of shooters that can knock down shots.”
Without Coffey and Murphy, who are now vying to be in NBA rotations, the Gophers are looking to reinvent themselves from the outside. But will it come at the expense of losing the toughness that helped them earn a tournament bid last March?
“Last year’s team was unique,” Pitino said. “It wasn’t a great shooting team, but it was great at getting fouled. We were terrific at getting to the foul line. We were terrific at getting your best players on the bench. It sounds simple, but if you can get the best players in foul trouble and get them on the bench and go against those second-string guys, that was the strength of that team last year.
“So we may be a little bit better at shooting. Spreading the court is easier. You can run different things when you have shooters. But we’re going to miss some things too, from last year’s team. We were a great rebounding team. We obviously had one of the best rebounders in Big Ten history.”
While the Gophers won by 25 Monday night, they were matched in rebounding at 42 apiece against the D2 Mustangs. That won’t fly in the Big Ten.
“You’ve got to come back and rebound the ball,” Pitino said Monday, “and when you look at guys like Marcus Carr playing 24 minutes and only getting three rebounds, Gabe playing 29, only getting two. That cannot happen. … We’ve used the word tough a lot. We’ve said it a lot. We’ve got to look tough.”
For the Gophers to win with their new-look group, they’ll either have to be exceedingly good at 3-point shooting or continue to do the little things that came more naturally to last year’s veteran team.
“I’m more worried about the 95%, is what coach calls it,” Willis said after Monday’s game. “The little stuff, the details, that get us to win. Box outs, diving for loose balls, just playing great defense.”