Gophers basketball set to start season after eventful training camp

The men’s basketball team has focused on competition and chemistry during offseason.

Sophomore guard Amir Coffey reaches out to block Northwestern forward Vick Law during a game at Williams Arena on Tuesday.

Ellen Schmidt

Sophomore guard Amir Coffey reaches out to block Northwestern forward Vick Law during a game at Williams Arena on Tuesday.

Nick Jungheim

Building up to the team’s 2018-19 campaign, head coach Richard Pitino has challenged his players every day. The expectation this season is that Minnesota will compete for a Big Ten title, something the team was expected to do last year. 

Last season, the Gophers finished a disappointing 15-17, winning four Big Ten games. Injuries decimated the roster and Reggie Lynch’s dismissal left the team with little front court depth.  

The Gophers have seen the return of many familiar faces this year, as well as the arrival of key newcomers. The current roster appears comparable to the 2016-17 team, which was a fifth-seed in the NCAA Tournament, though players and coaches don’t see it that way. 

“I think that this team is a lot different,” said junior Michael Hurt. “That year [2016-17], we were a little more limited. I think this year we will have a lot more depth, which will be good. We can give the starters a little bit of a rest.”

One important part of that depth will be bolstering the center position, where freshman Daniel Oturu will likely start. Redshirt sophomore Eric Curry was originally the probable starter at that position. Minnesota was excited to have Curry back after he missed the entire 2017-18 season after tearing multiple ligaments and his meniscus in his left knee. Curry underwent surgery on Monday on that same knee and is expected to be out for four to six weeks.  

Still, the Gophers feel comfortable with Oturu in the lineup. The four-star recruit led Cretin-Derham Hall to the Minnesota AAAA state high school championship last year. At 6 feet, 10 inches, he has worlds of physical and athletic talent. For now, the coaches are focused on acclimating Oturu, as well as fellow freshmen Gabe Kalscheur and Jarvis Omersa, to the rigors of a Division-I workout program.

“They all look good,” Pitino said of his freshmen. “Once you get to our level, you have a nutritionist, you have a strength and conditioning coach. We’re monitoring their diet, we’re making sure they’re eating the right way. And then obviously a strength and conditioning program, which most high schools just don’t have.”

The coaches do not only challenge freshmen, however. In preseason practices, a special practice jersey reading, “I Practice Harder Than You” is given to the player who exhibits outstanding effort each week. 

“We do a plus-minus system,” Pitino said. “We total it up every day, and at the end of the week, whoever wins gets a jersey. It’s been very, very competitive.”

Pitino mentioned senior Jordan Murphy and junior Amir Coffey as the two players who have won the jersey almost every week. Coffey, who missed about half of last season with a shoulder injury, said he feels healthy and is excited to start the season.

“I had to lift a little different because of my shoulder,” Coffey said. “I started to get my strength back, and I got back on the regular plan.”

Minnesota hasn’t just stuck to traditional lifting. In September, Pitino brought in ex-military personnel to put the team through “The Program” workout, a series of challenges meant to develop personal strength in addition to building teamwork.

One of the highlights of the work is a series of exercises that take place in the pool, something that challenged some players. “The players were in the pool at 6 a.m.,” Pitino said. “We have four or five guys who can’t swim. They had to be able to trust their teammates.”  

The time in the pool brought the team closer together and gave them another opportunity for friendly competition. Players quickly discovered who could handle the water best.

“The best swimmer, I’d probably say Brock [Stull],” Coffey said. “He could tread water for super long. I kept going to the side to catch my breath.”

The team will be glad to play on dry hardwood when they take on Minnesota Duluth Thursday night in an exhibition game at Williams Arena.