What Does the Future Hold for Gophers Basketball?

Photo Credit: Steven Branscombe (USA Today Sports)

As the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ 2018-19 season came to an end with a disappointing loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32, Richard Pitino’s team caught a glimpse of the challenges that lie ahead for a program that must now replace one of its greatest assets.

With Jordan Murphy missing all but four minutes in defeat because of back spasms — his first significant injury in his last game as a Gopher — Minnesota got outrebounded 45-19 and lacked any meaningful scoring in the post. The Spartans ended the Gophers’ season 70-50 without Minnesota’s X-factor on the floor.

Murphy brought consistent toughness for 133 consecutive games in maroon and gold. The void he leaves will be tricky, if not impossible, to fill.

“Jordan Murphy being 6-6 and being the second leading rebounder in Big Ten history,” Pitino said. “That’s hard to replace.”

Murphy is the headliner of a five-man senior class that had several unique paths that brought them to the Gophers. Starting guard Dupree McBrayer was the only other traditional four-year player as he scored over 1,000 points and often made his impact by passing and defending. He was also a 3-point shooting threat and could score off the dribble.

“I feel like this program, we’ve taken hits with injuries.”

Reserve guard Brock Stull came as a grad transfer from Milwaukee as a high-volume shooter but was never able to find a confident stroke with the Gophers. Seven-foot big man Matz Stockman transferred to Minnesota from Louisville and, while not particularly skilled, made his presence felt on defense due to his length. He was a nice wild card to have on the bench with Eric Curry missing significant time due to injuries. Jarvis Johnson never played for the Gophers due to a heart issue, but they’ll miss his emotional leadership.

If Objective 1 is replacing Murphy, Objective 2 is improving depth. For three consecutive years the Gophers have seen injuries affect them at the end of the season, from Akeem Springs’ Achilles tendon and Nate Mason’s hip in 2016-17; to Eric Curry’s knee, Amir Coffey’s shoulder and Dupree McBrayer’s leg in 2017-18; to Murphy’s back, Curry’s foot and Stockman’s concussion in 2018-19.

“I feel like this program, we’ve taken hits with injuries, and I hate using excuses, but we have,” Pitino said.

It’s not as if Pitino and Co. have planned poorly for these circumstances. Rather, key scholarship players haven’t developed as hoped. Last season, Minnesota wanted to get more out of Davonte Fitzgerald, Jamir Harris and Michael Hurt off the bench, but Fitzgerald and Harris didn’t jibe and ended up transferring, while Hurt was passive on the offensive end.

This year, Stull didn’t become a shooter as desired, freshman Jarvis Omersa wasn’t refined enough to score in the post, Isaiah Washington fell out of favor, and the Gophers never got the waiver they expected for transfer guard Marcus Carr.

When injuries have hit, the Gophers have lacked capable bodies to replace them.

On paper, next year’s roster shapes up to have at least 10 contributing players, pending transfers. Coffey, Gabe Kalscheur and Daniel Oturu will return as strong starters, and Curry should be healthier after a full offseason. Hurt and Omersa will provide forward depth. Transfers Carr and Payton Willis, a wing, will be eligible. Incoming freshman Tre Williams shapes up to be another talented guard. And then there’s the Washington question: Will the four-star recruit finally realize his potential as a point guard?

“Really excited about Tre [Williams], who we’ve got signed, is going to be a terrific player,” said Pitino. “Marcus and Payton, two guys sitting out, really good. We have really good young talent. Yeah, we’re going to continue to build that depth.”

Losing a stalwart like Murphy won’t be easy. It means the Gophers will have to get deeper and stay healthier — two things that have troubled them in the past.

The Gophers will also be committed to seeking out more talent this spring. Barring a shocking commitment from five-star recruit Matthew Hurt from Rochester-John Marshall, who will be announcing his decision on April 19, Minnesota could be in the market for a bridge at power forward to replace Murphy. While Pitino is optimistic about Omersa’s future, the Orono product shot just 29 percent from the field and 20 percent from the free throw line this season in limited minutes. He may be best-suited in a bench role where he can bring energy to the floor.

“You’re going to continue to recruit, figure out what the needs are, continue to build off it,” said Pitino.

It may be that Murphy can’t be replaced and the Gophers adopt a different style after having two post players that did most of their work in the paint this past year. With a healthy crop of athletic guards on the roster next season, the Gophers could move to a perimeter-based offense that empowers shooters while keeping the post unclogged for Oturu. The bigger conundrum would be replacing Murphy’s 11 rebounds per game, which may have to be a collective effort rather than placed on one man’s shoulders.

Losing a stalwart like Murphy won’t be easy. It means the Gophers will have to get deeper and stay healthier — two things that have troubled them in the past.

“We’re going to get back to work,” said Omersa, “have a better season, a better standing.”

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