The goal for the Gophers men’s basketball team wasn’t just to be thought of as an NCAA tournament team at midseason, but that means at least Richard Pitino and company are halfway to the finish line.
NCAA tourney bracket projections have Minnesota as high as a 10th seed this week, basically a team that is in but could be on the bubble with a rough stretch.
To be where the Gophers aren’t worrying from week to week where they stand to get into the Big Dance, they will need to play more consistently on defense, be more efficient scoring in the half court and keep developing a reliable rotation and bench.
What got Pitino’s team to a 13-3 record (3-2 in the Big Ten) were some major improvements from last season when it won just 15 games all year. Most importantly, though, the Gophers are fully healthy for the first time since the last NCAA tournament season in 2017.
There’s still a lot more season left to be played, but below are my midseason thoughts on the Gophers through their first 16 games:
MIDSEASON MVP: Amir Coffey
Coffey’s game usually rises with the level of competition, but who knew it would mean becoming the Big Ten’s leading scorer in five conference games. The 6-foot-8 junior was adjusting to his new role as the starting point guard and played banged up with a hip pointer injury while averaging 13.2 ppg in nonconference play. That scoring average jumped to 23.4 points per game so far in the Big Ten, which included a career-best 32 points vs. Nebraska and 29 points vs. Rutgers. Will Coffey eventually lead the league in scoring over the likes of Purdue’s Carsen Edwards (21.4 ppg), Indiana’s Romeo Langford (21.3), Michigan State’s Nick Ward (20.0 ppg), Maryland’s Anthony Cowan (19.9 ppg) and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ (18.8 ppg)? If he stays aggressive, Coffey should have a good chance to keep up the pace. What makes him a legit NBA prospect is that he’s also a great facilitator and gets his teammates the ball to score as well (Gophers are 19-1 the last two seasons when Coffey has three or more assists in a game).
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Gabe Kalscheur
What freshman would you have guessed entering the season to eventually be the reason the Gophers won the Vancouver Showcase? How about the first to earn Big Ten freshman of the week honors? How about also the best defender on the team? Most fans probably would’ve picked 6-10 four-star Cretin-Derham Hall recruit Daniel Oturu, who led his high school to the Class 4A state title last spring. Oturu has been a force inside, averaging 10.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and nearly two blocks this season. But the big surprise has definitely been fellow freshman starter Gabe Kalscheur. The former DeLaSalle sharpshooter made his presence known quickly averaging 13.9 points on 54.5 percent three-point shooting (23-for-42) in his first seven games. That included a season-best 25-point performance with seven threes in a win vs. Santa Clara, and he followed it up with a game-winning three against Washington in Vancouver in November. Even during a seven-game offensive slump that followed (6-for-34 from three and 6.1 points per game in that stretch), Kalscheur still brought value as a tough on-ball defender. He’s averaging 10.1 points and leading Minnesota in threes made and attempted (35-for-88) and three-point percentage (39.8).
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Transfer waiver
Imagine where the Gophers would be right now with one of the top young guards in the ACC last season. Pittsburgh transfer Marcus Carr had his waiver denied by the NCAA twice to be eligible to play right away this season. Carr claimed it wasn’t a healthy environment playing for the Panthers during a 0-11 conference season and watching Kevin Stallings get fired. Stallings was paid a near $10 million buyout, but Carr wasn’t allowed the opportunity to play for the Gophers and another coach in Richard Pitino who recruited him. So many other waivers were granted for this season that Minnesota actually thought it had a realistic chance to see him in the lineup when there was no decision following the season opener, but Carr has to sit out the 2018-19 season.
BIGGEST INSPIRATION: Dupree McBrayer
How many players could take the floor two days after losing their mother to cancer? How many players could miss just one game after your mother’s funeral, return to the team and play the best basketball of his career? Senior guard Dupree McBrayer is tougher than most players. He is dedicating this season to his late mom, Tayra McFarlane, who taught him to work hard and not quit when adversity hits. You know she would be proud of him right now. Hats off to him.
BEST WIN: Wisconsin
Just beating Wisconsin period was something the Gophers had only done once under Pitino going into this season – and not since his first season with the program in 2013-14. Not only did Minnesota end the eight-game victory drought in the Border Battle rivalry, but it won in Madison for the first time since 2009. Lawrence Westbrook was the hero in the overtime victory a decade ago. This time Coffey wore a cape and exploded for 15 straight points in the first half to silence the Kohl Center crowd. That give his team enough of a cushion to survive a second-half rally. This win on Jan. 3 against the Badgers also showed how well the Gophers could play defensively, and overcome star Jordan Murphy fouling out late in the game.
WORST LOSS: Ohio State
This wasn’t considered a bad loss at the time in the sense the Buckeyes were a top-25 opponent playing the Gophers in Columbus (Now Chris Holtmann’s squad has lost three in a row). Still, it was the way Minnesota got outhustled, overpowered and just plain beaten up physically that made it the worst loss so far this season. The final 79-59 score even was closer than the game actually felt, especially in the second half when Ohio State took its foot of the gas a bit. Kalscheur (scoreless in the game) and Oturu (foul trouble) learned a hard early lesson of how tough the Big Ten would be.
TOP PLAY: Kalscheur’s game-winning three vs. Washington
Kalscheur makes this list again with his high-arching three-pointer with 2.1 seconds left to defeat Washington 68-66 in the Vancouver Showcase finale on Nov. 21. The Huskies threw two defenders at Kalscheur, who got separation from Pac-12 defensive player of the year Matisse Thybulle and shot over big man Noah Dickerson to seal the U’s best nonconference win and improve the team to 5-0. Some observers thought Kalscheur traveled on the play to get the shot off. Well, you could say the same thing on half of the post moves from Washington’s Dickerson, who finished with 28 points. Don’t hate. This was a great play and moment.
OFFENSIVE GRADE: D
I base these midseason grades off Pitino’s last blog on Nov. 29 after the road loss to Boston College. He gave the Gophers a “D” offensively, because they missed a lot of open shots and didn’t make many adjustments, especially against zone defense. Sound familiar? That snake came back to bite them again in the 82-67 loss against Maryland at home on Jan. 8. Minnesota had an eight-point lead to begin the second half that was erased after the Terrapins used a zone to stifle the Gophers once again. I’ll include the 9-for-23 performance on free throws in this category as well from that loss. The Gophers picked it up with transition and fastbreak points in Saturday’s win against Rutgers, but they still rank 10th in the Big Ten in field goal percentage (44.2), 12th in three-point percentage (32.5), 11th in free throw percentage (66.7) and last in threes per game (5.8). Two bright spots overall on offense team-wise are ranking third in assists per game (15.9) and second in foul shots made (18.2) and attempted (27.3) per game. Coffey is obviously scoring at an All-Big Ten level, but Murphy needs to get on track in league play (scoring average dropped from 17.9 in nonconference to 10.8 ppg on 35.7 percent shooting from the field).
DEFENSIVE GRADE: C
Again, if this was just about the Rutgers game this would definitely be at least an above average grade. But I’m going by Pitino’s last blog again. He gave his team a “D” defensively after a 5-1 start to the season. I think during a six-game winning streak (including Big Ten wins over Nebraska and Wisconsin) the Gophers improved drastically guarding three-point shots and being disruptive on the perimeter. They took a few steps back in the second half against Maryland (allowing Anthony Cowan and company to shoot 70 percent), but at least the start of a defensive identity was being formed earlier. In KenPom’s rankings, the Gophers are actually better defensively than offensively in efficiency (No. 56 to 62), but they’re 197th in three-point percentage defense and 261st in steal percentage. Minnesota also is 11th in the Big Ten in scoring defense allowing opponents to score 68.3 points per game.
COACHING GRADE: WAY BETTER THAN F
I’m not one to give midseason coaching grades. That’s for administrators to evaluate at the end of the season using many more categories than listed above. So I’ll just include this section to bring up the grade Pitino actually gave himself in his last blog. Yes, he graded his coaching an “F” after the Boston College loss for a variety of reasons, including taking the blame for his players not playing hard and executing for 40 minutes. Being able to bounce back from ugly road losses to BC and Ohio State to win six in a row showed major improvement in those areas, even though a majority of the wins came at home against low-major opponents. Pitino handled McBrayer’s tragic loss with class by giving some of his own money to the team’s fundraising effort of more than $15,000 for McFarlane’s funeral. He allowed McBrayer time away from the team as well. Pitino also slowly brought sophomore big man Eric Curry back into mix after missing 12 games with another knee surgery in October. Curry has gradually been getting more comfortable with his increasing playing time to more than 20 minutes a game. He’s been able to help the Gophers in the frontcourt off the bench. If Pitino and his staff can solve the zone more consistently, he’ll be moving up toward the head of the class in my book. J
PREDICTED FINISH: Sixth place in the Big Ten
I’m not sure how this will play out record-wise, but the Gophers were sitting at fourth place through five conference games. That’s a great start, but there’s still a brutal stretch coming up. After favorable games Wednesday night vs. Illinois and Saturday against Penn State at home, Minnesota goes on the road to No. 2 Michigan. It eases up slightly with home games vs. Iowa and Illinois again, but six of the last 10 games are on the road to finish the regular season, which includes matchups at Purdue, at Michigan State, at Nebraska and at Maryland. Even the last four home games aren’t necessarily favorable with Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Purdue. If Pitino wants to reach the NCAA tournament for the second time, the Gophers in my opinion need to at least finish 10-10 in league play. That would mean going 7-8 the rest of the way. Not out of the question.