As college basketball dips its toes into the sports-during-a-pandemic waters, the Golden Gophers are flying below the radar. No glitzy preseason tournaments or opponents, no one-and-done freshmen to watch, and worst of all, no fans in the stands. Nonetheless, Richard Pitino’s team has started 3-0 with a convincing win over Green Bay and a two-game sweep of Loyola-Marymount thanks to an only-in-a-pandemic scheduling quirk.
With North Dakota set to face the Gophers Friday night at Williams Arena, let’s take stock of where the Gophers are at through their first three games.
CARR IS A STAR… SO FAR
It’s readily evident who the top dog is on this year’s Gophers squad. It’s junior Marcus Carr, who raised eyebrows when he tentatively declared for the NBA Draft, only to retreat back to school for another year of seasoning. While Carr’s draft declaration was met with skepticism about his future at the next level, he’s seemingly out to prove that his aspirations are no joke.
Carr has scored 35, 28 and 26, respectively, in the team’s three wins, including single-half totals of 19, 22 and 21 in each game. Three-pointers, mid-range jumpers, floaters, driving layups, you name it. He’s converted. His finest season highlight came just before the buzzer of Monday’s 67-64 win over Loyola-Marymount — a stepback 3-pointer that saved the Gophers from a potentially embarrassing early-season loss.
Marcus Carr game winner pic.twitter.com/omEYhZn8GC
— StreetHistory (Ryan S) (@streethistory) December 1, 2020
In both games against LMU, Carr was the energizer when he needed to be. The Gophers fell behind by nine in the first half of Game 1, but Carr scored 22 points in the stanza to vault them to a 41-37 halftime lead.
“There was a lull there offensively where Marcus took over,” Pitino said after that game. “Marcus made some big-time plays, but that’s what a big-time player does.”
In Game 2, the Gophers trailed deep into the second half before Carr took over, hitting 8-of-9 shots down the stretch. The Gophers could use a flip-the-switch kind of player in the Big Ten as they attempt to find their best second and third options (more on that later). But will Carr continue this torrid pace in conference play? As a sophomore, Carr flashed his take-over potential against Ohio State (twice), Purdue and Penn State, but he also scored 12 points or less in eight of his 20 Big Ten games, and he only shot better than 50% in five of those 20. So far, Carr has been more efficient, a fantastic 54% despite his high usage. But let’s not get too carried away after Green Bay and Loyola-Marymount.
WHO’S NO. 2?
Providing assistance for Carr has to be the Gophers’ main offensive objective so Big Ten defenses can’t freely swarm the primary ball-handler. Through three games, the right-hand man has been Utah transfer Both Gach, who’s averaged 13.7 points. The junior from Austin, Minn., appears to be a stronger on-ball threat than Gabe Kalscheur, and his defense has been stifling thus far. On a team with myriad newcomers finding their footing, Gach has wasted no time getting acclimated.
“I’m just creating some energy for our team because we’ve needed it,” Gach said after the team’s second game. “Trying to be the one to pick us up a little bit, trying to be the one to get us started on the defensive end, trying to get guys going.”
Kalscheur, meanwhile, is still trying to rediscover his freshman year offensive form when he shot 41% from 3-point range. His sophomore-season shooting declined across the board, and his junior year is off to an inauspicious start with a 1-of-12 start from beyond the arc and a 28% shooting stroke overall. The looks have been plentiful for the junior, but the shots haven’t fallen. But Pitino has never wavered in his confidence for Kalscheur and isn’t about to discourage him from shooting. With Carr attracting multiple defenders on dribble drives, the sky is the limit for Kalscheur hitting catch-and-shoot 3s throughout the season. Regardless of whether those shots fall, however, the Gophers still benefit from Kalscheur’s on-ball defense and good decision-making in the offense.
“If Gabe understands one thing after two years of me coaching him,” Pitino said, “I don’t judge his play on if he’s making threes or not. That is not how I evaluate if he’s helping the team.”
NOT EASY REPLACING OTURU
It’s been a rough start for Gophers playing on the blocks. Starting center Liam Robbins has 13 fouls and one foul-out through three games and has yet to demonstrate much offensive finesse aside from a pair of 3s in Game 1 vs. LMU. Brandon Johnson has also averaged four fouls per game as he returns from a three-week injury absence. Johnson came off the bench the first two games before joining the starting lineup in Game 3.
Eric Curry and Jarvis Omersa are energy pieces as much as anything, but both have looked comfortable in those roles so far. Curry has shot 2 of 5 in each of the three games with some mid-range jumpers that would be a nice addition to a frontcourt that lacks shooting touch. Omersa may never develop a jump shot, but he’s converted a handful of high-flying dunks that have brought life to the bench in an otherwise stagnant arena.
Curry and Omersa, though, won’t be able to replace Daniel Oturu‘s 20 points per game themselves. The Gophers need Robbins and Johnson to be offensive threats to take pressure off Carr and the guards, and they won’t be able to do that if foul trouble persists.
“To me, it’s five guys out there, and everybody is a threat,” Pitino said. “It’s very simple.”
MINIMAL FRESHMAN IMPACT
As expected, only Jamal Mashburn Jr. has been a part of the Gophers’ rotation, and even his impact has been minimal. Mashburn has played 12 minutes per game and scored a total of 10 points, and it’s tricky to say at this point whether he’ll be relied upon in Big Ten play. Mashburn is a bit undersized, which may make him hesitant to attack the rim early in his career. On the bright side, his early assist-to-turnover ratio sits at 2:1. While he seems comfortable as a backup ball-handler, Mashburn may not be asked to do too much as a freshman because of Minnesota’s guard depth.
Non-conference games can be a drag even with fans in the stands, and even moreso without them. The fan-less experience at Williams Arena has been bizarre for players and coaches alike.
“It’s going to be an adjustment,” Pitino said. “Marcus hits a dynamic game-winner, and I almost looked around, like, what do I do?”
The sounds of the game have been primarily produced by the bench of the team that has the most momentum. While pregame theatrics and a booming public address voice remain, the absence of a roar after a big play leaves a hollow feeling for players like Omersa, who are used to his dunks being met with raucous approval.
“The coming-down [from the dunk] is weird,” Omersa said.
The junior also said he had a recent phone conversation with his former teammate Oturu about creating his own energy sans fans.
“He said, ‘Hey, that doesn’t affect your play style. That doesn’t affect what you do and what you bring to the team still.’ That’s so cool.”