Richard Pitino has won with mostly newcomers before.
In his first year as a men’s basketball head coach in 2012, Pitino took a Florida International team with nine new players to the Sun Belt tournament title game. Five years later, the Gophers made their first NCAA tournament under Pitino with five newcomers.
Pitino is now beginning Year 7 with the Gophers. Seven is also the same number of newcomers for the 2019-20 team, the most for the program in 15 years.
A foreign tour in Italy gave Pitino a glimpse of his new basketball team, but there are still five big questions going into the Gophers’ first official practice Tuesday.
Q: Can the Gophers replace the production of starters Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer?
A: Those three starters averaged 40 points per game combined last season, accounting for 57% of the team’s scoring. Murphy’s Big Ten-leading 11 rebounds per game alone made up for 30 percent of the team’s average on the glass. Transfers Marcus Carr (Pittsburgh), Payton Willis (Vanderbilt) and Alihan Demir (Drexel) are likely the new starters, but they have big shoes to fill.
Q: Will Eric Curry be healthy enough to be a major contributor in the frontcourt?
A: Curry, a 6-foot-9 redshirt junior, has averaged 5.1 points and 4.6 rebounds in 49 career games. But he sat out the 2017-18 season and the first 12 games in 2018-19 recovering from knee surgeries. He also missed the final seven games last season after foot surgery. When Curry is healthy he’s a solid two-way frontcourt player, but he is still waiting to be fully cleared this fall.
Q: Can the Gophers get much better in three-point shooting?
A: The Gophers ranked 344th nationally three-pointers per game (5.3) and 300th in three-point percentage (31.7) last season. Gabe Kalscheur was the only consistent shooter at 41 percent from long distance. But Carr, Willis and Demir all have shot better than 30 percent from three in their career. That could help the Gophers improve from beyond the arc.
Q: What’s next for Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur?
A: Pitino can’t afford to have his two returning starters go through a sophomore slump. But the way Oturu and Kalscheur played as freshmen, they both could be ready to take on bigger roles. Oturu led all Big Ten freshmen in rebounding (7.0), shooting percentage (55.1) and blocks (46). Kalscheur led all conference freshman with 77 three-point field goals.
Q: Who will make the biggest impact of the freshmen?
A: Pitino’s top-30 recruiting class was led by four-star prospects Isaiah Ihnen and Tre’ Williams. The 6-9 Ihnen oozes potential with three-point range and a 7-4 wingspan. But Williams, a 6-5 wing, could contribute right away after leading the Gophers with 15 points per game during their Italy trip.