Gophers men’s basketball entering pivotal offseason

Head coach Richard Pitino will return, but many other questions remain unanswered.

Head Coach Richard Pitino observes the game at Williams Arena on Monday, Dec. 2.

Nur B. Adam

Head Coach Richard Pitino observes the game at Williams Arena on Monday, Dec. 2.

Nick Jungheim

It is a time of unprecedented uncertainty across the sports landscape. However, many knew weeks ago that the Gophers men’s basketball team would enter the offseason with many crucial questions in need of answers.

The first and most important matter was promptly addressed last week as athletic director Mark Coyle announced head coach Richard Pitino would return in 2020-21 for his eighth season at the helm of the program. Coyle expressed confidence in Pitino but reiterated that he expects results from the program.

“Coach Pitino and I met [Friday],” Coyle said in a statement. “Richard understands my high expectations for our program, which is to compete at a championship level.”

Although speculation swirled regarding his job security, Pitino consistently expressed confidence that he would return.

“We have a young team, we played a tough schedule,” Pitino said. “Guys are giving me their all so that’s really it. When you get a two-year extension before the season you don’t think about [job security].”

In two of the previous three seasons, the Gophers qualified for the NCAA Tournament, but with a 15-16 overall record in 2019-20, it appeared that the team would miss the cut, even before the COVID-19 pandemic cut the season short. Minnesota dropped six of eight games to finish the regular season before a first-round victory in the Big Ten Tournament.

Helping Minnesota’s chances to return to the NCAA Tournament is the fact that the majority of its roster will return next season. This includes a trio of starting guards in Marcus Carr, Gabe Kalscheur and Payton Willis. Of the team’s three graduating seniors, Alihan Demir, Michael Hurt and Brady Rudrud, only Demir was a regular starter.

Complicating the Gophers’ outlook for next season is the uncertainty of whether center Daniel Oturu will return for his junior season. In his sophomore campaign, Oturu established himself as one of the conference’s best players, receiving second-team All-Big Ten honors. He ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring (20.1 points per game), third in field goal percentage (56.3%) and led the league in rebounds (11.3 per game) and blocks (2.5 per game).

“[Oturu] wants to get better, he loves the game,” Pitino said. “His improvement, I would think, is a reflection of him as well as our program and player development.”

Minnesota owes much of its success this season to Oturu’s stellar play on both ends of the court. However, his dominant season may open the door for him to leave school early.

Some projections have Oturu being selected in the first round of the 2020 NBA Draft, including NBADraft.net which has Oturu getting selected with the seventh overall pick. From his freshman year to now, Oturu has improved his game in a number of facets that has put him in a favorable position to get drafted.

“I think my game has taken a huge step forward,” Oturu said. “Especially in the aspect of playing with more confidence, shooting the ball a lot more, showing my perimeter touch. I think that’s helped me a lot.”

Should Oturu choose to go pro, it would leave a big hole in the Gophers’ front court. Since Demir is graduating, it would mean Minnesota would have to replace both starters from this past season.

The team does have some options to replace them: Jarvis Omersa will be a junior next fall and Eric Curry will be a redshirt senior. Omersa and Curry are both talented players but have just seven combined career starts. Curry has only appeared in 15 games over the past three seasons due to multiple injuries.

Behind Curry and Omersa, the Gophers have Isaiah Ihnen, who had a strong finish to his freshman season, averaging 6.9 points per contest over the final seven games. Four-star forward Matrice Mitchell will also join the team next season as a freshman.

Currently, the Gophers have two four-star commits in Mitchell and guard Jamal Mashburn Jr., who will team up with Carr, Kalscheur, Willis and Tre’ Williams to create a deep and dynamic backcourt. Additionally, Minnesota can be expected to add further depth to their roster in the spring by signing another recruit or grad transfer.

The coming months will reveal how the Gophers’ roster will look in 2020-21, but the most important questions facing the program will not be answered until next March: Will the Gophers make it back to the NCAA Tournament? And if not, will Pitino keep his job as head coach?