Believe it or not, Gophers basketball season has arrived, and it’s only about three weeks delayed. Richard Pitino’s group takes on Green Bay in Wednesday night’s season opener.
Williams Arena won’t have its usual buzz this year with fans prohibited indefinitely, but the new-look Gophers enter the 2020-21 season with a lot of upside after a disappointing 15-16 (8-12) campaign that was cut short in the Big Ten Tournament by COVID-19. You might be wondering: How could the Gophers improve after losing Daniel Oturu to the NBA? The answer: By gathering possibly one of the best transfer classes in the country.
But as we’ve seen in the past: Roster reconstruction can go one of two ways. In a limited offseason, will the Gophers have any chemistry without the aid of their typically meaningful home-court advantage? And who are some of the major players on the revamped roster?
Let’s dig into the biggest questions facing these Gophers.
WHO IS REPLACING DANIEL OTURU?
This time last year it didn’t seem like the Gophers would be required to fill a void at center. Oturu was coming off a good, but not overwhelming, freshman season where he averaged just over 10 points per game. His meteoric sophomore leap put him squarely into the draft conversation, however, and sent Pitino in search of height with his prize big man destined for the pros (he went 33rd to the Los Angeles Clippers). With Oturu gone, the Gophers were essentially “5-less,” unless you count Jarvis Omersa — who defends hard but only stands 6’6″ — and Sam Freeman, who barely played his freshman year.
That’s why Pitino’s acquisition of 7-foot transfer Liam Robbins was the biggest offseason move for the program in several years, coupled with the fact that Robbins secured a waiver to play immediately from the increasingly-lenient NCAA.
One could easily draw comparisons between Robbins and Reggie Lynch (looking past Lynch’s off-the-court transgressions). Both came from the Missouri Valley (Robbins from Drake, Lynch from Illinois State) after their second season. And both have the rim protecting gene. Lynch averaged 2.8 blocks at Illinois State the year before joining the Gophers, where he became arguably the most prolific block artist in program history. Robbins averaged 2.9 blocks at Drake last year while starting all 34 games, and he’s got more offensive chops than Lynch, averaging 14.1 points per game, shooting 50% from the floor, 69% from the line and even taking an occasional 3-pointer.
He won’t have the offensive refinement or range of Oturu, but Robbins will drastically improve the Gophers defense with his decisive size advantage. He has been placed on the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award watch list.
ARE THERE ANY IMPACT FRESHMEN?
It’s always wait and see with freshmen, of course. Some can play immediately, some may need until mid-season, and some may require a red shirt season whether they earn the official distinction or not. Minnesota has three freshmen on the roster this year, and it’s clear that Jamal Mashburn Jr. is the one to watch closest.
The son of the 11-year NBA veteran was a four-star recruit who played his final high school season at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. Mashburn is a 6’2″ ball-handler, and with Marcus Carr back for a second year, Mashburn will need to either settle into a niche as an off-ball guard or a backup point guard to fit with the ball-dominant Carr, who calls Mashburn “a sponge” at practice.
“He’s competitive. He came in unbelievable shape physically,” Pitino said Tuesday of Mashburn. “I’m excited about him. I do think he can play both positions, he can play the 1 and the 2, but we have a lot of guys on the team that can play multiple positions, so that’s a good problem to have. I think his future is very, very bright. I think he’s tough, he’s competitive, he’s cerebral, and he’s talented.”
Gophers fans may be having flashbacks to Pitino’s last highly-touted point guard from the northeast, Isaiah Washington, who only lasted two seasons in the program. Like Washington, Mashburn may have to accept a smaller role initially in his freshman year.
Other freshmen Martice Mitchell and David Mutaf are wild cards. Mitchell is another four-star recruit from the Chicago area, and at 6’10”, 190 pounds, he plays more like a guard. Obviously the Gophers would embrace any offensive upside from a nearly 7-foot-tall shooting threat, but it’s unclear who Mitchell would match up against on the defensive end. Is he quick enough to defend the perimeter, and is he strong enough to defend the post? Mutaf is a Turkish national that will have a big adjustment with the Big Ten’s style of play. Anything the Gophers get from him in Year 1 is house money.
IS THERE FINALLY SOME DEPTH ON THIS TEAM?
It feels like there is an annual optimism about the Gophers’ depth that typically falls flat. Injuries, off-court issues, ineligible transfers and misjudged skill levels have all contributed to this chronic issue that has been the demise of several promising Gophers teams. Once again, the Gophers are setting the trap with a roster that, on paper, looks deep.
It helps that the team is older with more established talents. Not counting former walk-on Hunt Conroy (sorry, Hunt), the Gophers have five juniors and two seniors that should be in the team’s top eight or nine contributors. In addition to Robbins, Minnesota native Both Gach transferred from Utah to join the maroon and gold, while grad transfer Brandon Johnson joined from Western Michigan. All three transfers are game-ready. Add in two of last year’s top three scorers (Gabe Kalscheur and Carr), two of last year’s most promising freshmen (Tre Williams and Isaiah Ihnen) plus any freshman contributions and you’ve suddenly got a strong, seasoned rotation.
In theory, the Gophers could trot out an all-junior starting lineup with Robbins, Johnson, Gach, Carr and Kalscheur. Those five combined for 67.2 points per game last year, all in double figures at their respective schools. Considering last year’s team averaged just 71.1 points with an NBA talent in Oturu, the 2020-21 Gophers might be a little deeper offensively.
There could be an early hitch in this plan: Johnson is dealing with an ankle injury, which may elevate the oft-injured Eric Curry into the starting lineup. Pitino doesn’t anticipate Johnson’s injury being long-term, but his early-season status is up in the air. Once Johnson returns though, the fifth-year senior Curry will be able to settle back into a low-minutes, high-energy role. Same for junior forward Jarvis Omersa, who’s much better in short bursts.
Ihnen might be one of the team’s best bench players early in the season after his strong end to 2019-20 where he established himself as a stretchy defender and sharp-shooter. Williams can also offer a shooting touch off the bench. Add Mashburn to the mix and you’ve got 10 contributors without even touching Mitchell, Mutaf or Freeman.
In a pandemic season where COVID-19 could lead to multi-week absences for key players, depth is going to be pivotal.
HOW WILL COVID-19 ALTER THE SEASON?
Unfortunately, a team that’s probable to win some big games this season won’t get to do so in front of fans for the foreseeable future. The Big Ten will power through, as they’ve done with football, and reap the financial benefits of TV revenue. But the aesthetic of college basketball played without student sections and bands will be bizarre.
Pitino hasn’t offered exact details, but his team paused activities for more than a week earlier in November to deal with issues pertaining to the virus, and the players are continuing to receive tests each morning. Positive tests could lead to a stringent 21-day absence as mandated by the Big Ten, which is certain to affect teams throughout the year. Programs that keep the roster together will have a decided advantage during the conference season, as a three-week absence could cost a player one-third of the conference slate. More serious outbreaks could lead to myriad cancellations, as we’ve already seen across college football with virus numbers rising nationwide.
“This is a big deal,” Pitino said. “We want to provide an opportunity for our guys to be able to play, but it’s also very, very challenging. But everybody’s dealing with it.”
Younger teams may struggle early in the season with a limited number of non-conference games to get acclimated. The Gophers currently have just five non-conference games scheduled and are working on two more. Their only major-conference test will come on Dec. 8 against ACC bottom-feeder Boston College in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Some coaches, like Pitino’s father Rick, the head coach at Iona, have petitioned for a delay across the sport to wait until the recent COVID-19 wave dies down and a vaccine becomes available. The NCAA is already making March Madness plans for a one-site tournament in Indianapolis, however, and it looks like the season will be starting as scheduled.
HOW SECURE IS RICHARD PITINO’S JOB?
Pitino, under contract through 2023-24, is presently following the Mike Zimmer pattern of odd-year success and even-year failure. His 2017 and 2019 NCAA Tournament appearances mirror the Minnesota Vikings’ playoff appearances those same seasons, only to be followed by disappointment the ensuing year. The 2017-18 and 2019-20 groups should have won more than 15 games each, but injuries played a big part on both squads.
In a normal season, Pitino could be on the hook if the Gophers missed the NCAA Tournament again with a veteran roster, but the variables presented by the pandemic may create hesitancy in any athletic director to make a major move. Considering the Gophers’ junior-heavy roster, 2021-22 could be a make-or-break year with fans back in the stands. That might be the year Pitino sits on the hot seat — but only if the 2020-21 season is a flop, which it may not be with this much potential.