Amid rumors that his job was in jeopardy, Gophers coach Richard Pitino turned in the best season of his young coaching career, flipping Minnesota from eight wins in 2015-16 to a 24–10 record in 2016-17 that included the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth in four years.
But now — with almost all of his key players returning this season — Pitino is trying to guard against a letdown. If he can help Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy grow, and if Nate Mason, a first-team All-Big Ten player, can maintain his success, the Gophers could compete for the conference title. If not, they could be looking at another season on the NCAA Tournament bubble, even though this team has more talent than last season’s squad.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Richard Pitino
2016-17 RECORD (BIG TEN): 24–10 (11–7)
2016-17 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Middle Tennessee 81–72 in the first round
G Akeem Springs (9.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg)
For the first time since Pitino arrived in Minneapolis four years ago, he has a strong rotation of four big men down low.
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Murphy averaged 11.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game as a sophomore and is one of the conference’s best forwards. He’s often a focal point of the offense and notched 12 double-doubles last season, second most in the Big Ten.
Murphy will be joined in the starting lineup by Reggie Lynch, whose 114 blocks as a junior set a program record and helped earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. Lynch often put himself in foul trouble with his aggressive defense, but he showed an improved offensive game.
Behind them, Davonte Fitzgerald, a transfer from Texas A&M who sat last season out due to an ACL injury, could make an impact off the bench, although he hasn’t played competitive basketball since averaging 9.6 minutes per game with the Aggies in 2014-15.
Eric Curry, who averaged 5.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game as a freshman, will miss the season with an injury.
Just about everything the Gophers do goes through Mason, their senior point guard who led the team in scoring at 15.2 points per game and assists with 169. Mason was the first commit to Pitino at Minnesota and will complete his career in Minneapolis with a chance to be one of the best players in program history.
Junior Dupree McBrayer and sophomore Amir Coffey likely will join Mason in the starting lineup. Coffey, a top-50 recruit, lived up to high expectations as a freshman, averaging 12.2 points per game, including a 30-point game against St. John’s. The 6'8" guard should be one of the top players in the Big Ten this season.
McBrayer, who started 21 games in 2016-17, will step in for Akeem Springs, the lone major contributor from last season’s team who is not returning. McBrayer shot 41.6 percent from 3 as a sophomore.
The Gophers addressed their lack of depth in the backcourt, bringing in one of their top classes under Pitino, led by New York City’s Isaiah Washington, who is expected to contribute right away. The team also added slick-shooting freshman Jamir Harris.
Pitino, 34, has never coached as much talent as he has this season. If he pushes the right buttons, Minnesota could return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since its vacated run to the Final Four in 1997. But without much proven depth in the backcourt, the Gophers will again need to rely heavily on Mason and Coffey. If that duo shows any complacency, the Gophers may not match their 24 wins from a year ago.