FOX Sports North asks and answers five questions for the Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball team ahead of their season opener Tuesday against Omaha.
What do the Gophers need to accomplish for a successful season?
Expectations soared for the Minnesota Gophers this time last year, as the team was fresh off a 24-win campaign and an NCAA tournament appearance in 2016-17. But injuries to two starters and legal trouble for another quickly derailed a promising 7-0 start to the 2017-18 season, and the Gophers dragged to a 15-17 record and missed the big dance for the fourth time in Richard Pitino’s five years as head coach. This year, Pitino and the Gophers simply need to get back into the tourney and prove last year’s disappointment was a fluke. They’ll have to do so without the graduated first team All-Big Ten guard Nate Mason, who was a top-two scorer on the team in each of the past three seasons.
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Are there any newcomers to keep an eye on?
Yes, there are plenty. A trio of stud homegrown freshmen join the maroon and gold in Daniel Oturu (Cretin-Derham Hall), Jarvis Omersa (Orono) and Gabe Kalscheur (DeLaSalle). All three players, who all played together last year on the Howard Pulley AAU team, are expected to have big roles, with Oturu and Kalscheur set to start the opener. With a monster 6-foot-10, 225-pound frame, Oturu will give Jordan Murphy a legitimate partner in the frontcourt -- something he was missing last year after Reggie Lynch was suspended. Omersa might be the best pure athlete on the team and Kalscheur is a threat from downtown. Additionally, sophomore guard Marcus Carr, who led Pittsburgh in assists last season before transferring to Minnesota in the spring, is still waiting to hear from the NCAA if he’s eligible to play this year. If he is, the 6-foot-2 guard should play heavy minutes and might even start.
Will Isaiah Washington make the next step?
Washington was, hands down, Pitino’s most hyped recruit in his five-year tenure, mostly because of the guard’s massive following on social media as a New York highlight machine and trendy #JellyFam moves. However, the four-star recruit looked a bit overwhelmed in early Big Ten play, as he scored in double figures just five times in his first 23 games. Washington also shot 36.6 percent from the field, second-worst on the team among players with 200+ attempts. But Washington seemed to hit a stride late in the season, averaging 14 points, three assists and 1.2 steals per game over his last nine contests. The Gophers need Washington to continue to grow and tap into his freakish potential, especially now without Mason running the show.
Which games will boost the Gophers’ postseason resume?
Only three Big Ten teams -- Michigan St. (No. 10), Michigan (No. 19) and Purdue (No. 24) -- found a spot in the AP top-25 preseason poll, released Oct. 21. The Gophers play Purdue and Michigan two times apiece and visit the Spartans once in February. And the non-conference schedule isn’t too arduous, either, as Washington (Nov. 21) is the Gophers’ only other preseason top-25 opponent on schedule. But, as we quickly re-learn every year, the preseason poll doesn’t mean much. Led by Juwan Morgan, Indiana is expected to compete for a conference title, as is Tim Miles’ club in Nebraska. If the Gophers can win most of their home games and steal a few on the road, they should be in good shape in a deep Big Ten conference.
What will the rotation look like?
On paper, Minnesota’s roster is by far the deepest it’s been in the Pitino era. Amir Coffey, who’s played mostly shooting guard in his first two seasons, will get looks at point guard. Two-time All-Big Ten forward Jordan Murphy and senior guard Dupree McBrayer will be the other two familiar names in the starting lineup, while freshmen Oturu and Kalscheur should get a chance to start early on. It’ll be Washington leading the second unit, which will feature the freshman Omersa and junior Michael Hurt, who started 14 games last year. A couple of players will boost the depth even further in Carr (pending his transfer status) and Eric Curry, who played 34 games in 2016-17, missed all of last year and will return in four to six weeks after undergoing knee surgery this fall.