Gophers men’s basketball players turned to coach Richard Pitino after his whistle blew, stopping them abruptly late in Thursday’s scrimmage, when a freshman forgot the play.
Pitino didn’t freak out like he would if it were a practice closer to the season. He’s got several new faces that will take time to learn his system.
The U’s nine-day trip to Italy starts Saturday, including several games that will give Pitino a chance to see what life is like without stars Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy. This could be a better-shooting team with guard transfers Marcus Carr and Payton Willis, but there are a lot of unknowns.
“It really does feel like a brand-new team with seven new players,” Pitino said. “You lose Murphy, [Dupree] McBrayer and Coffey, who were major parts of what we were doing. I feel like it’s Year 1 a little bit, but it’s been enjoyable.”
Sophomores Gabe Kalscheur and Daniel Oturu are the only two returning starters and players who averaged double figures in minutes for a 22-victory NCAA tournament team last season. Seven newcomers on the roster are the most for the program since the 2004-05 team had 12 newbies.
Carr, Willis and graduate transfer forward Alihan Demir are expecting to compete for starting roles. The standout of Thursday’s scrimmage was definitely Carr, a 6-2 redshirt sophomore who started at Pittsburgh two seasons ago.
During one stretch, Carr nailed two three-pointers, took two charges and found teammates open shots to spark the Maroon squad to an 18-6 lead. Oturu switched sides to the Gold to make it more competitive. Earlier, Oturu converted a spinning layup after Carr drew an extra defender and threw his big man the ball with space to move at the foul line.
“Marcus Carr has got really good leadership qualities,” Pitino said. “He’s kind of a natural leader.”
Carr taking over as the starting point guard was expected. Willis, a redshirt junior from Vanderbilt, has arguably been the biggest surprise of the summer. He is solidifying himself alongside Carr and Kalscheur as the replacement for Coffey, who left a year early to chase his NBA dreams.
“Amir was a pretty unique player at his size to do what he did,” Pitino said. “Payton is a skilled guy. I don’t know if he’s as good off the bounce as Amir is, but he’s a pretty good shooter. He’ll probably fill that role with what we need.”
Murphy spent four years dominating the glass to become the Gophers’ career leading rebounder. The 6-9 Demir looked much more comfortable facing the basket than banging down low, but the Gophers need his experience.
Pitino has three freshmen who are Big Ten-ready physically: guards Tre’ Williams and Bryan Greenlee and center Sam Freeman. The highest rated of that recruiting class just arrived from Germany last week, but forward Isaiah Ihnen is already turning heads.
Ihnen’s dunks drew hollers from teammates in drills Thursday. It was only his third practice, so imagine his frustration when he had to sit all but a minute of the scrimmage after nailing an opening three.
Ihnen joined recovering big man Eric Curry on the sideline after landing awkwardly on his left ankle, but it was nothing serious. The Gophers should get a chance to see a lot more of what their newcomers can do on this Italy trip.