The Minnesota Golden Gophers signed Turkish recruit David Mutaf over the weekend, bringing them within one player of a full roster.
In a changing college basketball landscape that is experiencing more player movement than ever — even during a nationwide quarantine — Richard Pitino has done an admirable job forming his 2020-21 team despite seeing two starters declare for the draft, another starter transfer and another in-state recruit Kerwin Walton jilt the Gophers.
There will, once again, be a number of new faces on Pitino’s squad next season, and up to four starting spots available. That leaves ample room for debate about which sophomores and incoming freshman have the capability to step up and play a significant role.
Even though the season is over five months out, let’s take a stab at the Gophers’ rotation for 2020-21.
Minnesota’s starting five took a hit when big man Daniel Oturu expectedly declared for the NBA Draft. It took another hit when guard Payton Willis unexpectedly transferred to Charleston. Add in graduating senior Alihan Demir, and there are three starters definitely out the door.
Point guard Marcus Carr also declared for the draft in a surprise decision but didn’t hire an agent, leaving the option available to return to school. Because of the unorthodox pre-draft process due to COVID-19, there’s a strong likelihood Carr will return to Minnesota, having been robbed of a chance to bolster his draft stock at the NBA Combine or during in-person meetings. If the to-be junior comes back to the team, it will prevent another catastrophe at the point guard position, where the Gophers have been shallow for years, and are even shallower in 2020 after backup Bryan Greenlee opted to transfer.
Assuming Carr’s return, he’d take the reins as the team’s point guard for a second straight year. Carr had high highs and low lows throughout his 2019-20 season. The transfer from Pittsburgh demonstrated the ability to take over big games — like his 35 points against Ohio State or his 27 points against Penn State — but he disappeared too frequently and was inefficient as a scorer, shooting just 39% from the floor. There’s plenty of reason to believe, however, that he can improve with another year under his belt and perhaps some better shooting around him.
Gabe Kalscheur hopes to provide that shooting touch after an at-times dreadful sophomore season, where he saw his 3-point percentage in conference games fall from 43% to 29.9%. Kalscheur remains the best defender on the team, though, and among its best free-throw shooters. He’ll be a staple in the starting lineup once again.
Beyond Carr and Kalscheur, it gets interesting. The Gophers need to replace Willis’s 3-point shooting and Oturu’s ability in the post. (With respect to Demir, it shouldn’t be too difficult to replace his production or defensive acumen.)
Isaiah Ihnen seems to be the most logical apples-to-apples replacement for Willis. Ihnen was a late bloomer as a freshman but started to emerge late in the season as an alternative to Demir. Ihnen perfected his 3-point stroke and fired at 41% over the final seven Big Ten games, and he even collected 10 rebounds in 24 minutes at Wisconsin with his 6’9″ frame. Based on his momentum to end last season, Ihnen appears to be in great position to start.
The Gophers are getting taller next year with freshman Martice Mitchell standing around 6’10”. But the biggest addition — literally and figuratively — was 7-footer Liam Robbins, the Drake transfer. Robbins averaged 14.1 points and 7.1 rebounds as a sophomore while blocking almost three shots a game. Robbins could be a devastating addition to the lineup if the NCAA allows him to play. The NCAA is considering passing a one-time transfer rule that would allow athletes to switch schools once without sitting out a year, but it may not go into effect this season. Robbins can also apply for a waiver that could grant him immediate eligibility, but there’s no guarantee it would be approved. If Robbins gets a favorable ruling, however, he’ll likely be an instant starter.
That leaves the power forward spot free, and it seems earmarked for grad transfer Brandon Johnson out of Western Michigan. The acquisition by Pitino provides a one-year stopgap while Mitchell fills out and takes some pressure off junior role player Jarvis Omersa. Johnson averaged 15.4 points and 8.1 rebounds at Western Michigan with an improving ability to shoot the 3. Pitino has frequently sought out one-year grad transfers to fill holes (i.e., Demir, Akeem Springs, Malik Smith), and Johnson feels no different. Once he acclimates to the Big Ten game, he could make a sizable impact, giving the Gophers a mature and well-rounded starting lineup.
PG – Marcus Carr (Jr.)
SG – Gabe Kalscheur (Jr.)
SF – Isaiah Ihnen (Soph.)
PF – Brandon Johnson (Sr.)
C – Liam Robbins (Jr.)
We’ve said this before, but the Gophers look fairly deep on paper, even without Oturu or Willis. But as fans have learned, that optimism can quickly go by the wayside with a couple of injuries and the general unpredictability of freshmen.
Carr’s backup at point guard almost has to be the four-star recruit Jamal Mashburn Jr., by default. Granted, Carr played ridiculous minutes in 2019-2020 and has the durability to play the full 40 if necessary, but he showed obvious fatigue late in games last year and will need longer respites moving forward. Mashburn is 6’2″ with range, ballhandling and, of course, blood lines — his father played a decade in the NBA. It’s unlikely he would be relegated to a bit role like Greenlee last year. Instead, the Gophers may try and find ways where Carr and Mashburn can share the floor if Mashburn proves to be the real deal.
Mutaf, the latest addition from Turkey, offers 6’6″ size at another guard spot with good shooting range, per reports. But as fans saw with the German product Ihnen last year, there can be an adjustment period when prospects come to the United States. Still, Mutaf has the right measureables to be a contributor off the bench. He and Tre’ Williams may jockey for reserve minutes on the wing. Considering his four-star recruitment status, Williams had an underwhelming freshman year. He settled into a bench role that gave him 10-15 minutes per game but shot a mere 28.2% from the floor and 27% from beyond the arc. Ihnen seemingly passed him in the pecking order last year, and if Williams doesn’t show improvement, Mutaf could move past him as well.
The front court reserves appear plentiful one year removed from Oturu having to do things by himself. Mitchell brings almost 7-foot size to the squad, though he doesn’t have the girth of a true center, having both finished high school under 200 pounds. His agility will allow him to mix in at the power forward spot or even on the wing in a positionless lineup. If he can emerge as a scoring threat, he could be one of the first off the bench.
Minnesota’s returning big men, Omersa and Eric Curry, could be in a tough position unless they show improvement. For Curry, that means staying healthy. The 6’9″ product hasn’t had a normal season since 2016-17 (!) after suffering a pair of knee ligament tears, which were sandwiched around an ankle injury. At this point, it’s hard to expect much from Curry from a minutes standpoint, even though he was a valuable reserve four seasons ago. Omersa still has his defense going for him, even if he fouls too frequently. But through two seasons he’s demonstrated little offensive prowess. If Omersa could be even a mild scoring threat, he may be a preferred veteran option in the front court, but there seem to be more versatile players around him that could take precedence.
Center Sam Freeman is also on the roster, but he played virtually zero meaningful minutes as a freshman, which makes it hard to project much from him as a sophomore.
PG – Jamal Mashburn Jr. (Fr.)
G – David Mutaf (Fr.) / Tre Williams (Soph.)
F/C – Martice Mitchell (Fr.)
F/C – Jarvis Omersa (Jr.) / Eric Curry (Sr.)