Men’s basketball season preview: Minnesota looking to forge new identity

Gophers are replacing three starters from last year’s NCAA Tournament team.

Guard Marcus Carr drives towards the hoop during the Gophers' exhibition game against Southwest Minnesota State at Williams Arena on Monday, Oct 28. The Gophers won 73-48.

Sydni Rose

Guard Marcus Carr drives towards the hoop during the Gophers’ exhibition game against Southwest Minnesota State at Williams Arena on Monday, Oct 28. The Gophers won 73-48.

Nick Jungheim

Last season was a successful one for Minnesota men’s basketball: a 22-14 overall record, an appearance in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament and a victory in the NCAA Tournament — the program’s first since 2013. However, heading into 2019-20, the Gophers’ roster features many changes.

Three of last year’s regular starters have departed, including forward Jordan Murphy, who graduated as Minnesota’s all-time leading rebounder and second leading scorer. Guard Amir Coffey, the team’s leader in points scored a season ago, declared for the NBA Draft with a year of eligibility remaining. Richard Pitino has some big shoes to fill in his seventh season as head coach. He believes this year’s group needs to find its own unique identity.

“The word I wrote on the board was, ‘Identity,'” Pitino said. “Every good team has an identity. Our last two teams had an identity: physical, tough, rebound the ball, get fouled. I don’t know what this team’s identity is going to be.”

Redshirt sophomore Marcus Carr and redshirt junior Payton Willis, who both sat out last season due to NCAA rules after transferring from Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt respectively, will be key contributors this year. Though the duo has yet to make their debut in a regular season game together, they already feel comfortable playing in tandem.

“We’ve definitely developed some chemistry,” Willis said. “Playing on the scout team last year and playing in Italy, it’s just natural now.”

Sophomores Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur will return after promising freshman seasons. Kalscheur led the team in made 3-point shots in 2018-19, hitting 77 on 188 attempts. Both Oturu and Kalschuer averaged over 10 points per game in their freshmen seasons and Oturu was second in rebounding behind Murphy, averaging 7.0 per game.

Oturu will be called upon to play an even bigger role in the front court this season since redshirt junior Eric Curry will miss the season with a torn ACL. It’s the latest in a series of unfortunate injuries for Curry, who has played in just 15 games over the last two seasons. 

“He still is a very valuable asset to our team,” senior Michael Hurt said of Curry. “A lot of guys who go through injuries could just sit on the side line and not say anything during practice or not come to practices. But, he’s there every day and is leading a lot of our younger guys who need it.”

In Curry’s absence, Alihan Demir, a graduate transfer from Drexel, figures to start at power forward. Sophomore Jarvis Omersa and Hurt are also expected to get increased minutes.

Minnesota’s incoming freshman class consists of guards Bryan Greenlee and Tre’ Williams and forwards Sam Freeman and Isaiah Ihnen, a four-star recruit from Germany. At 6-foot-9, Ihnen’s combination of length and athleticism has impressed coaches and could make him an asset in an offense that will emphasize spacing the court and outside shooting.

Despite having many newcomers, the Gophers have had plenty of opportunities to get to know one another. In August, they took a trip to Italy, playing three exhibition games which helped team bonding on and off the court.

“We got good chemistry during that trip,” Kalscheur said. “I feel like it was a great experience. We had a lot of fun and we got better.”

Looking ahead, Minnesota will face plenty of early tests. The non-conference schedule features road trips to Butler and Utah, neutral site games against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and a home meeting with Clemson. Before that, the Gophers will host Cleveland State on Nov. 5 to open the regular season.

“We better be ready,” Pitino said. “I think there’s a sense of urgency to it all.”