Once Again, the Gophers are Lacking a Useful Bench

Photo Credit: Joseph Maiorana (USA Today Sports)

After his team shot 28 percent in a 70-52 loss to Michigan State last Sunday, Richard Pitino confessed he should’ve given freshman Tre’ Williams a bigger role.

“‘I should’ve found you a little bit more,'” Pitino told him.

As he’s done much of the year, Pitino rolled with his starters, who were struggling to make shots. And if the Gophers bench remains untapped, the starters’ play will likely determine the team’s results going forward, for better or for worse.

Minnesota has the lowest-scoring bench in the Big Ten at under 10 points per game. Williams is their leading reserve scorer at just 2.8 points per game in 16 appearances off the bench. Sophomore Jarvis Omersa is averaging 2.4 points per game in 19 reserve appearances.

In 10 conference games, the Gophers bench has been outscored 180-43, 18 points per game to 4.3. Omersa and Williams have been the only reserves to score in eight of those games. The bench was outscored 29-0 at Purdue, 35-7 vs. Ohio State and 19-2 vs. Penn State. The only conference game where their bench outscored the opponents’ was versus Northwestern, when ordinary starter Payton Willis came off the bench while returning from injury and scored seven points as part of a 14-5 bench advantage. It’s the only Big Ten game where the Gophers have double-digit bench points.

This is the continuation of a trend that has plagued Pitino’s teams for years: an often-strong starting five that is one injury away from collapse, prone to fatigue and dependent on a small handful of scorers.

To be fair to the Gophers’ coach, he’s not entirely at fault for the lack of depth. This year, for instance, Amir Coffey opted to go pro, robbing the Gophers of arguably their best all-around player. In addition, Eric Curry suffered a second preseason knee injury in three years that caused him to miss the season.

Then there’s the long list of transfers, which has taken potentially useful pieces from the rotation before they had a chance to develop. In the last three years, Ahmad Gilbert, Jamir Harris, Davonte Fitzgerald (who transferred from Texas A&M) and Isaiah Washington have transferred after two years or less with the program. Gilbert and Fitzgerald would have been seniors last season, while Harris and Washington would be juniors on this year’s team. Both groups were starved of bench play. And there is no greater whiff in the Pitino Era than failing to make things work with Washington, a four-star point guard that showed some incredible offensive gifts but rarely seemed to click with Pitino, exhibited poor body language and spent most of his sophomore year unproductively riding the bench before departing.

The last two Gophers teams to make the NCAA Tournament wound up being bitten by their lack of bench. The 2016-17 Gophers lost senior starter Akeem Springs to an injury in the Big Ten Tournament and dropped their first-round tournament game to Middle Tennessee State. Nobody outside of Eric Curry scored off the bench and the Gophers shot just 6 of 21 from 3-point range. In 2018-19, the Gophers rode their starters hard in a first-round win over Louisville, devoting just 18 total minutes to the bench. Jordan Murphy suffered back spasms in the game and, as a result, had to sit out for most of the Gophers’ second-round matchup against Michigan State, a lopsided loss.

Out of 25 conference and postseason games last season, the Gophers bench was outscored 21 times. And in two of the four games where Minnesota’s bench had the advantage, Daniel Oturu had been swapped out of the starting lineup with Curry. The 2018-19 bench was outscored 17.2 to 7.9 in those 25 games, and the negative differential has only widened in 2019-20.

Williams is seemingly the only Gophers bench player with potential to score, and even so, the freshman is shooting just 29 percent from the field. Omersa, the sophomore, has yet to develop his offensive game outside of dunks and layups, and he struggles to finish in traffic. While Omersa has been diligent in his shot selection, shooting 48 percent from the floor, he has been a liability at the free-throw line (36 percent) and fouls too much on the defensive end (seven fouls per 40 minutes). Senior Michael Hurt has the most experience of any player off the bench but has seen his minutes dip in conference play and hasn’t scored in the last nine Big Ten games.

Minnesota has squeezed little out of Isaiah Ihnen, Sam Freeman and Bryce Greenlee, freshmen deemed too raw to contribute meaningfully this season. Greenlee, a point guard, was thought to be a backup that could spell Marcus Carr, but the Gophers have leaned heaviest on Carr to the tune of 36.5 minutes per game, 19th-highest in the nation. He’s playing 38.5 minutes per game in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, with Curry hurt and Freeman unready, the big man Oturu has pushed himself to play 36.9 minutes per game in conference, at times playing through pain.

The Gophers (11-9, 5-5) are teetering on the brink of NCAA Tournament inclusion with half their conference schedule remaining, but they’ll have to stay healthy, stay energized and out of foul trouble to remain strong. Without any bench threats, Minnesota has little recourse if something goes amiss.

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