It took all 20 Big Ten games in 2019-20 for the Golden Gophers to reach 150 bench points — total — in Big Ten play, and they wouldn’t have accomplished it without a drubbing of Nebraska in the season finale that allowed Richard Pitino to empty his bench.
Through just eight conference matchups in 2020-21, the reserves have exceeded the previous year’s total with 151 points, a breath of fresh air for a program that has routinely found itself overworking its starters due to a thin or untrustworthy group of reserves.
Minnesota is averaging over 10 points per game better this season from its bench, 18.9 compared to last year’s 7.5. The biggest lift came on Christmas from Brandon Johnson, a usual starter who came off the bench due to a recent ankle issue. Johnson scored 26 points in a win over the Iowa Hawkeyes, part of a 36-point bench effort. But beyond Johnson’s breakout game, the bench has consistently produced. The reserves have produced 10 or more points in all but one Big Ten contest — that only happened once in the first 16 Big Ten games last year before Isaiah Ihnen started scoring late in the campaign.
The Gophers are older this year, and it’s paid off with their depth. Oft-injured senior Eric Curry has delivered some key minutes and scored six points in Minnesota’s recent upset win over Michigan, junior Jarvis Omersa played effective defense before opting-out, and a trio of sophomores have all had strong moments. Most importantly, the Gophers have stayed healthy aside from short-term injuries to Johnson and Tre Williams. Four of the team’s five preferred starters have been in the lineup for all 15 of the team’s games.
“Well, we’ve had injuries [in the past], so knock on wood we don’t have that,” Pitino said Friday. “We’ve had season-ending injuries. We’ve had things out of our control. But it’s still a long season. You hope and pray every day, you don’t have to deal with those things. Besides from, I believe, Tre missing a game, we haven’t had anything significant, and that is a major factor in team success. It’s not like the NBA, where you can pick up somebody on a 10-day contract, or you can trade. Your roster is your roster, so knock on wood with what we’re doing in the weight room, the training room, what we’re doing in practice.”
Pitino later added a third reference to knocking on wood, taking extra care to superstitiously safeguard his team from the type of injury woes that have befallen them in prior years. Payton Willis had a hard time staying healthy in 2019-20. Curry and Dupree McBrayer dealt with injuries the previous year. Before that, Amir Coffey and Nate Mason couldn’t stay healthy, while Reggie Lynch missed half the season due to off-the-court issues.
Ineligible transfers have also taken up precious roster spots in the past, something the Gophers aren’t dealing with this season, thanks to the NCAA granting waivers to starters Both Gach and Liam Robbins. Marcus Carr, along with Willis, sat out the 2018-19 season after the NCAA denied his waiver application. Lynch, Davonte Fitzgerald and Matz Stockman also spent recent seasons in street clothes. Combine that with abrupt transfers out of the program, and it’s easy to understand why the Gophers have struggled to find a competent bench. Since 2016-17, Ahmad Gilbert, Isaiah Washington, Jamir Harris, Bryan Greenlee, Fitzgerald and Willis have joined and left the program within two years. Even during the 2020-21 season, freshman David Mutaf suddenly transferred after just 11 games.
Fortunately for the Gophers, Pitino has combatted the lack of retention with savvy transfer acquisitions of his own. While those pick-ups were largely meant to fill holes in the starting lineup (i.e., Robbins, Johnson and Gach), the trickle-down effect in 2020-21 has allowed the Gophers’ reserves to play manageable parts in the team’s 11-4 start. Sophomores Tre Williams, Isaiah Ihnen and Sam Freeman have each provided sparks at different times. Curry has given energy and even developed a reliable baseline jump shot. Only one freshman has been required to play significant minutes, four-star recruit Jamal Mashburn Jr., who appears primed to play a much bigger role down the road.
“What I love about Jamal is he has an understanding of the big picture,” Pitino said. “I could absolutely play him more, but I don’t know where to play him right now. Now what the future holds with Marcus [Carr] moving forward could obviously open up great opportunities for Jamal. He sees that. He sees the big picture. That is rare. … He works his butt off. He lives in the gym. He’s going to get better and better. We’ve had a lot of good guards like him, whether it’s a Nate Mason, whether it’s a Marcus Carr. We hope that he’s kind of the next guy in line there. He’s got some very valuable minutes in some very tough games, so that’ll do nothing but help him in his growth.”
It’s been a group effort to elevate the Gophers bench to a respectable level. Through 15 games this year, there are 23 instances where a reserve has scored six or more points. That only happened 15 times a year ago. The well-distributed scoring load has helped Minnesota keep its starters’ minutes in check, too. Only two Gophers (Carr and Gabe Kalscheur) are averaging over 30 minutes per game, and only four are averaging over 25. In 2019-20, three Gophers (Carr, Kalscheur and Daniel Oturu) played over 33 minutes per game, while each starter was at 25 or more.
For once, Pitino has been forced to hold back worthy players instead of thrusting them into too big a role. It’s a helpful development for the Gophers, who may get their bench even more involved with a forgiving schedule ahead.