What Will the Gophers Look Like Without Amir Coffey?

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker (USA Today Sports)

Whether he gets drafted or not, Amir Coffey will not be playing basketball at the University of Minnesota next season.

The star guard who led the Gophers to their first NCAA Tournament win of the Richard Pitino Era opted to remain in the NBA Draft pool after nearly two months of workouts and draft preparation. The deadline for his decision was May 29.

It was thought previously that Coffey would be able to return to the Gophers if he went undrafted — a new proposal that the NCAA was prepared to sanction — but the NBA Players’ Association has yet to approve the change.

That means one of the most popular Gophers — and one of Pitino’s most prized in-state recruits — will either be playing in the NBA, the G-League or overseas next year. He is considered a late second-round prospect who may fall out of the draft completely.

Pitino is left with a promising but unproven group. Jordan Murphy, one of the program’s most prolific scorers and by far its most prolific rebounder, is gone. Dupree McBrayer, a steadying senior on both ends, is gone. And now Coffey, a three-year starter, has moved on, perhaps in part because of his final eight games in which he averaged 23.5 points and showed up on the big stages of the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.

And finally, four-star point guard Isaiah Washington also chose to transfer after a disappointing two seasons.

That means over 40 points per game is leaving the program, an alarming amount of offense. And in Coffey, they no longer have a hard-to-guard end-of-game threat that could get to line and hit clutch shots. But his departure also offers the Gophers a chance to make fundamental changes to their identity.

Here’s how Minnesota could look different next season.

Better Efficiency

Coffey was a born slasher, a dazzling contortionist around the rim (though he rarely stuck the landing, hitting the deck at a rate that had to make onlookers wince). Rightfully playing to his skillset, Coffey was most gifted as a rim-runner and mid-range jump shooter. He took only eight fewer two-point shots than Murphy, a classic post-up power forward, last season. In an effort to expand his 3-point range as a junior, Coffey took a career-high 135 3s but saw his percentage dip to 30.4 percent amidst a higher volume.

Between Murphy, Coffey and Daniel Oturu, the three leading scorers took 920 2-point shots a season ago. That’s virtually the same number of 2s as the entire Villanova team (939). The Gophers had gifted athletes, but their top three scorers also lived in and around the paint, making Minnesota an inefficient offensive team that took few 3s (319th in the nation) and usually struggled on the attempts they did take (307th in percentage). With efficiency now playing a role in the tournament committee’s NET rankings system — a system that Pitino studies and cares about it — the Gophers could pivot to a floor-spreading offense that features sophomore Gabe Kalscheur, who shot a gaudy 41 percent on 188 3s last year while attempting just 95 shots inside the arc.

Newcomers Tre Williams (freshman), Marcus Carr (transfer), Payton Willis (transfer), Isaiah Ihnen (freshman) and Alihan Demir (transfer) should all be able to shoot from 3-point range, which will offer Pitino an opportunity to retool his offense if he’d like.

Traditional Point Guard Play

With Washington, the once hotly-recruited point guard, seemingly regressing in his sophomore season, Coffey was given a ball dominant role as point guard while playing over 35 minutes per game. But he didn’t fulfill the traditional point guard duties given his role as a scorer. Coffey’s assists numbers came in at a modest 3.2 per game. Plus, Pitino’s offense emphasized ball-handoff action that allowed Coffey to move without the ball and catch passes off screens.

The junior’s multi-purpose role also came about because the NCAA denied transfer Marcus Carr’s waiver to play immediately after leaving Pittsburgh.Carr might have Pitino’s starter last season had things played out differently, and he’ll likely be favored to start in 2019-20. The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder fits the billing of a more traditional point guard who averaged 4.0 assists per game in his lone year with the Panthers, including 11 games where he dished out five or more.

But Carr should also provide offensive punch, having drawn comparisons to Purdue’s Carsen Edwards from Pitino, who got to watch Carr in practice last season.“He was unstoppable,” Pitino said of Carr in a Star Tribune piece by Marcus Fuller. “I’m going to have to continue to tell him he can be Carsen Edwards next year. He looked really, really good.”

New Crunch-Time Players

Naturally, the Gophers will need to figure out who their new end-of-game closer will be. Coffey was instrumental last season in Big Ten wins against Nebraska, Wisconsin, Purdue (twice) and numerous others down the stretch. Minnesota often went as Coffey did, going 14-5 when he scored 15 or more points versus 8-9 when he scored fewer.

The late-game leadership lost between Coffey, Murphy and McBrayer could be noticeable early next season, but Kalscheur is the obvious choice to be the biggest clutch-time contributor. Shy off the court but certainly not on it, the freshman Kalscheur hit a game-winning 3 against Washington, a game-tying 3 at Michigan and scored 24 points in the team’s tournament win over Louisville.

Coffey’s absence essentially closes a generation of Gophers basketball as he, Murphy and McBrayer were common threads on two NCAA Tournament teams and are now moving on. His choice to go pro removes a key player from the equation and likely reduces the Gophers’ ceiling for 2019-20, but it gives the Gophers a clean slate on which to work and a lot of exciting new talent to headline the next generation. Aside from senior reserves Michael Hurt and Demir, the Gophers should have their core together for the next two-plus years.

The 2019-20 campaign will be a transition year, but not the same type as 2015-16 when the Gophers won a meager eight games. This group has a stronger base, a better incoming class and a chance to get more efficient with a shift in identity.

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