4 Keys to a Competitive Gopher MBB Season
On paper, the 2020-21 Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball team is way more talented than the team we saw in 2019-20. Daniel Oturu was a great college basketball player and his loss will hurt all season. Liam Robbins + Brandon Johnson won’t fill his void.
But the additional talent and depth that this Minnesota team has in the backcourt, compared to last season, is a night and day improvement. Adding Both Gach and Jamal Mashburn Jr has completely changed the outlook of this group and Tre Williams is a completely different player in his sophomore year.
But that’s on paper
But as we learned on Tuesday night in Champagne, basketball isn’t played on paper. The Gophers walked into a pent up orange tornado of basketball rage vs the Fighting Illini earlier this week and I’m hoping it was the punch in the mouth they needed. Welcome to the Big Ten. It’s time to wake up.
They took a phony 6-0 record into that game and got it stuffed right back down their throat by Kofi Cockburn (pronounced like it’s spelled). It was a humbling 92-65 experience and Richard Pitino’s fighting Gophers got back on the plane with fluffy tails between their legs.
Back to the drawing board…
This loss was depressing, embarrassing and sobering… but it wasn’t devastating. Richard’s 2020-21 roster was jumbled together in a COVID hurry. Both Gach didn’t have his waiver approved to play until just weeks before the season.
Throw in a handful of cream puffs early in the schedule, just to build some empty confidence, and a pissed off Fighting Illini team with two NBA lottery picks in its starting-5, for the Big Ten opener. And poof.
It was the perfect brew for a big time Big Ten reality check… and that’s exactly what happened. The Gophers got their clocks cleaned. But, how devastating is this loss, in reality? It’s not.
Nobody picked Minnesota to win earlier this week vs Illinois. As of now, there’s nothing for Richard Pitino to “turnaround” or “get back on track”. At 6-1, his squad is exactly where they should be.
But, if you watched that game (or the highlights above) some things clearly need to change if Minnesota is going to compete in the deepest conference in college basketball. It’s a lot to ask but all four of the improvements below aren’t just “possible”. They’re easily “feasible”.
#1. Wings NEED to be better.
This conversation starts with Gabe Kalscheur.
I’m sick of seeing this dude miss shots. You were specifically brought here to make 3-point shots and you’re shooting 17.2% on the season from deep (29% FG).
I’m sick of waiting for Gabe to get better. You can hold every high school record in the state and have the most beautiful stroke in the country… but if the balls don’t go through the hoop, it doesn’t fucking matter. Pitino has better options at his disposal this season. If Gabe can’t improve on offense then he needs less minutes, period.
Engaged Both Gach is crucial.
Getting Gach to transfer from Utah could prove to be one of the biggest recruiting wins in Richard Pitino’s tenure at the University of Minnesota. Without him, this team would not have the talent to compete in the Big Ten over the next couple of seasons.
He’s long, athletic and skilled. When he’s engaged on defense and knocking down outside shots on offense, he can be your team’s best player. He showed us that first hand last season when he went off vs the Gophers in Utah.
After triple-doubling against MVSU, Utah's Both Gach had a handful of wow-plays in win over Minnesota. 6-6 sophomore wing averaging near 18-5-4. Needs to add strength, improve handle in tight spaces, but he's become a tough shotmaker, sharper transition scorer, capable in PnR. pic.twitter.com/K5xK46xST2— Jonathan Wasserman (@NBADraftWass) November 19, 2019
But vs Illinois, he was a shell of himself. He posted an utterly disgusting box score line of 1 point, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in 26 minutes of play. How does that happen when you have Marcus Carr drawing most of the defense’ attention? It can’t.
Gach has all the tools to be the 2nd-best player on this team but he needs to want it more than he did on Tuesday night.
#2. Liam Robbins MUST adjust to Big Ten
I knew Liam Robbins was in trouble vs Big Ten big men when he was getting into early foul trouble vs Loyola Marymount. That proved true vs Illinois when Robbins was racking up personal fouls like like they were gift cards on Christmas Day.
When Robbins was in the game early, the Gophers were competitive. As soon as he went out, Kofi Cockburn (pronounced like its spelled) took over and the game was over by the time Liam re-entered.
Robbins will be a good player in the Big Ten but how quickly he can adjust to the physicality of this conference will go far toward dictating how competitive the Gophers are in 2020-21.
#3. Jamal Mashburn Jr needs to grow up fast
Jamal Mashburn Jr has looked just like one would expect a talented young true freshman to look, especially with a limited offseason and preseason. There are times, both offensively and defensively, where Jamal Jr looks to be seeing the floor well and playing fast. Other times, he looks lost.
Growing pains are to be expected… but they can’t last very long if this team is going to win games in 2020-21. Pitino needs to be able to trust Mashburn Jr to play big spot minutes at any time.
Marcus Carr is a great player but he can be a loose cannon, oftentimes playing out of control when fatigued. Last year, there was nothing Richard could do about it. He had nobody else to handle the ball and even a bad Marcus was better than no Marcus Carr.
If Jamal Mashburn Jr can help Pitino spell Carr at the right times, and even create a spark off the bench throughout the season, it would go a long way in making it a success.
#4. Prove it Time for Richard Pitino
The offense has looked like shit this season and that’s on Richard Pitino to improve. Can he come up with an offensive game plan better than 4-handoffs and a Marcus Carr isolation dribble drive?
If not, it’s going to be a long season. I’m willing to cut Little Ricky a bit of slack because he hasn’t had a lot of practice time. Age isn’t an argument, though. This is a veteran team that needs to find a way to gel together in a hurry.
If Richard can make that happen, it would be his best coaching performance of a young career. If not, this will be a long and terrible season of Minnesota Gophers basketball and the call for Pitino’s job will be louder than ever.
Pitino’s life has been basketball and his connections spread farther and wider than any young coach in the game. There’s really no excuse for coaching and offensive strategy being a problem for a team this talented.
Another test on Sunday
The Gophers will play the last non-conference game on their schedule on Sunday, when the Saint Louis Billikens come to Williams Arena. Saint Louis is turning into the next mid-major powerhouse and have climbed into the top-25.
Minnesota is going to be a big underdog at home in this matchup. The Billikens are 9-0 vs the spread in their last nine games (according to OddsShark.com) and the Gophers just got dominated on Tuesday. Sounds like an opportunity to change some minds.
Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan