Thirty years ago, Clem Haskins took his Gophers basketball team to New Zealand and Australia over the summer – and they used that bonding experience to reach the Elite Eight in 1990.
That’s basically the poster child for foreign tours turning into big-time success for the U.
Haskins also went to England, Belgium and France in 1993, which followed with his team reaching the NCAA tournament second round. Still, Dan Monson went to London in 1999, while Tubby Smith and Richard Pitino went to Canada and Spain in 2010 and 2015, respectively. Those teams didn’t make the NCAA tourney.
Can Pitino’s Gophers use a recent trip to Italy to help them achieve their NCAA tournament goals in 2019-20? That question won’t be answered anytime soon, but below are five things we learned about the Gophers on this summer’s foreign tour.
Willis was MVP
Pitino picked junior guard Payton Willis as the Italy trip's MVP in his latest blog. It's easy to see why that was the case. The Gophers could have finished their trip to Italy with a loss if not for Willis’ play in the fourth quarter of their 84-79 opening win last Tuesday against Stella Azzurra Academy in Rome. The Vanderbilt transfer scored seven of his 14 points in the fourth quarter, including the second of back-to-back three-pointers after Minnesota faced a 75-73 deficit with under three minutes left. During game-sealing 9-0 run, Willis also assisted on a clutch Gabe Kalscheur three from the corner. After struggling offensively in Game 2 (2-for-7 from the field), Willis bounced back with 15 points (13 points in the first half), seven assists, five rebounds and three steals in Saturday’s 98-66 win vs. Como Select to end the tour. The 6-foot-4 Arkansas native averaged 11.3 points, a team-best 5.3 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 2.3 steals in three games. He shot just 29.4 percent from beyond the arc, but Willis was outstanding taking care of the ball (16 assists and just two turnovers). Pitino put Willis at point guard at times, allowing Pittsburgh transfer Marcus Carr to play off the ball. Willis is a different player than Amir Coffey, but he should help the Gophers fill that role with his versatility on offense and defense.
Freshmen class should contribute
Three of the Gophers four incoming freshmen practiced with the team all summer. During that time, Tre’ Williams established himself as the freshman seemingly most ready to play a significant role. Standing nearly 6-6 and around 200 pounds, the Dallas native is almost two inches and 20 pounds bigger than when he was an under-the-radar prospect last year. His athletic ability and defense-first attitude was expected to get him playing time, but Williams surprisingly has a scorer’s mentality as well. He led the Gophers with 15 points per game in Italy, which included 19 and 22 points in his last two games. His three-point and foul shooting 31.6 and 47.4 percent weren’t ideal. But the Gophers could have themselves another potential offensive spark off the bench. The U’s most physically intriguing freshman is 6-9, 210-pound German Isaiah Ihnen, who has a 7-5 wingspan and three-point range. Ihnen tied Williams with a team-high 19 points on 8-for-16 shooting (3-for-5 from three-point range) vs. Tuscan Select. Ihnen only had a few practices with the Gophers before traveling to Italy, which included being hampered by an ankle sprain. Minnesota’s coaches are excited to see his growth once Ihnen’s here for good in the fall. Bryan Greenlee and Sam Freeman might see spot time as freshmen, but they give Pitino depth at point guard and center. Greenlee was the best freshman in Game 1 with eight points, including two key second-half threes. Freeman’s work on the glass in limited action was impressive with 12 rebounds combined in 28 minutes the last two games.
Daniel Oturu has the talent to establish himself as one of the top centers not only in the Big Ten but the entire country this year. That’s not debatable (averaged 11.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in just 14.3 minutes in Italy). The question is how dominant a player the 6-10 sophomore is going to be this season. Swatting shots and running the floor to throw down rim-rattling dunks are what highlighted his freshman year. This summer he’s also added a three-point shot to his arsenal, going 3-for-5 from long distance on the foreign tour. He was just 1-for-2 from deep last season. Oturu will do most of his damage near the basket, but having a frontcourt (also forward Alihan Demir) that stretches the floor can open Minnesota’s offense up this season. Oturu, who added 15 pounds this summer, will be a force in the Big Ten if he's more consistent defending without fouling and foul shooting for the Gophers. His playing time was limited in Italy in part due to foul trouble in all three games. Oturu could find himself at the foul line more than any other Gopher this season, so he’ll have to shoot better than 47 percent (9-for-19) on the foreign tour. He was a 61 percent foul shooter last season, so maybe we're overreacting a little from his free throw issues in Italy.
The level of competition was hard to gauge in Italy, but one constant was that the Gophers relied heavily on three-point shooting. They averaged 11.3 threes made in three games, but also 33.7 attempts. Minnesota shot 10-for-36 vs. Stella Azzurra and 13-for-38 vs. Tuscan Select. Keep in mind that the school record for three-point attempts in a game is 36 (record for made threes is 16). If this trend continues during the regular season don’t be surprised to see three-point team records fall, especially in nonconference games. The U only averaged 5.3 threes per game last season, which was last in the Big Ten and among the worst nationally. Shooting more threes means you could make more. That doesn’t mean you’re a better shooting team. Still, the Gophers have added more outside shooting threats. Kalscheur, who missed the final game with a minor ankle sprain, was Minnesota's top shooter last season. He was 4-for-12 from three on the trip, but Williams (6-for-19), Willis (5-for-17), Ihnen (4-for-12), Greenlee (4-for-8) and Michael Hurt (3-for-4) all had games with multiple threes. The Gophers shot 33.7 percent in Italy from long range (31.7 last season), but the team’s accuracy could improve with better shot selection.
Minnesota’s comeback win in the opener in Italy was against the toughest opponent by far in three games. And it was no coincidence that Pitino’s starting lineup that night vs. Stella Azzurra was Carr, Kalscheur, Willis, Demir and Oturu. You can bet that will be the same group that starts the regular season opener this November. Kalscheur and Oturu are returning starters from last season’s 22-win NCAA tournament team. Willis has arguably been Minnesota’s most consistent player all summer. Carr got off to a poor start in Italy with a 3-for-14 shooting performance (1-for-8 from three and 2-for-8 on free throws) in Game 1. Still, the sophomore from Canada shot 7-for-14 in the next two games combined and added 10 assists and six steals. Demir, a graduate transfer from Drexel, is the biggest question mark considering he has only played at the mid-major level. Past grad transfers such as Akeem Springs and Brock Stull both from UW-Milwaukee needed time to figure out their roles (Stull struggled to make an impact at all). Demir had an advantage over them after spending the entire summer practicing with the Gophers. The 6-9 senior’s strong effort on the boards in Italy was a good sign. Demir averaged 9.7 points and 6.0 rebounds in three games, including a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds vs. Stella Azzurra. Demir’s inside presence won’t obviously be what former Gopher standout Jordan Murphy gave them during his historic four-year career. But Demir, Hurt and sophomore Jarvis Omersa played well enough in Italy to feel comfortable at power forward before Big Ten play. That'll take pressure off junior Eric Curry to play major minutes until he's ready coming off last season's foot injury.