There aren’t many options left for Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino to put a competitive lineup on the floor for the last seven games of the regular season.
Pitino does appear to have at least two choices that change the way his team plays good and bad. He can either go big or go small.
For one game this season in a 77-69 loss last week against Northwestern at home, the Gophers tried their 6-foot-7 junior leading scorer and rebounder Jordan Murphy at center and had 6-8 junior Davonte Fitzgerald at power forward.
Small ball looked good for about 25 minutes, but it didn’t provide enough spark for the win.
So Pitino decided in Tuesday’s 94-80 loss at Iowa to switch back to having Murphy at power forward and 6-11 senior Bakary Konate at center in the starting lineup.
Pitino said the Gophers didn’t want to go small against a taller and longer Iowa team, but they didn’t have a choice eventually with Konate in foul trouble, 6-10 senior Gaston Diedhiou out with a right ankle injury and 6-8 sophomore guard Amir Coffey missing his sixth game with a right shoulder injury.
“It was challenging because we wanted to go a little bit bigger,” Pitino said Tuesday. “They just kept going inside and beating us up down there.”
Actually, Iowa only had a slight edge in points in the paint 38-32. Minnesota won the rebounding battle 38-35, which included 14 offensive rebounds. The real damage came from allowing 12-for-25 shooting from three-point range and 61 percent shooting in the second half.
Injuries and Konate's limited minutes with fouls made Minnesota rely on the smaller lineup with Murphy and Fitzgerald playing in the frontcourt together Tuesday, and also 6-7 sophomore Michael Hurt getting extended time inside as well.
Murphy finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds. Fitzgerald had his best game as a Gopher with 16 points on 4-for-4 shooting from three-point range (career high), six rebounds, three assists and three blocks in 27 minutes. Hurt finished with seven points (his first Big Ten three-pointer), two rebounds and a block in 29 minutes.
Freshman guard Isaiah Washington also ended a four-game slump with a career-high 15 points, seven assists and just one turnover in 25 minutes off the bench Tuesday. Washington had scored just six combined points in 20 total minutes the previous four games.
“The bench really stepped up with me, Mike and Isaiah,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re a little undersized down low, so we’re going to have to keep battling. With Reggie (Lynch) being out, me and Murphy have had to play more down low. We just have to figure out how to be effective. Maybe do different things, try to use our athletic ability down there, because we’re not as big. We can still battle and scrap down there.”
Starting junior guard Dupree McBrayer was held to just eight points on 2-for-8 shooting. He played only eight minutes in the second half being hampered by a lingering lower left leg injury.
So the question moving forward is based on the players available in the last game, which lineup should Pitino go with to finish the season? Should the Gophers go small or big? Should they start Washington at point guard and have McBrayer come off the bench, because he’s not healthy?
No matter what decision Pitino makes he can’t replace 6-10 senior Lynch, who missed his eighth straight game Tuesday. The Gophers are 1-7 without Lynch at center. And Minnesota is 1-5 without Coffey, who is questionable for Saturday’s game at Michigan.
“We don’t know the timetable with Amir being out and obviously Reggie’s situation,” Fitzgerald said. “We need to get into these roles and give a little bit more coming up to try to help us win.”
-- Murphy, who leads Division I basketball with 20 double-doubles this season, is one shy of tying Gophers great Mychal Thompson’s single-season school record with 21 double-doubles. Thompson accomplished that fete in 1975-76.