Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.
I'm not sure if Mike Tyson used those exact words, but those are the ones we all remember. And Minnesota had a plan last year (keep up the defense, take some of the load off Nate Mason on offense).
And then it got punched in the mouth.
First, Eric Curry was lost for the season. Curry was a solid performer as a freshman, but the good news is that the Gophers were not lacking for bodies in the frontcourt. Then the Lynch news hit. To be fair, the suspension and eventual expulsion stemmed from incidents that allegedly occurred in April of 2016, so it was not exactly a blindsiding event. Then around the same time, Amir Coffey goes down with injury. And without enough options to keep defenses honest, the Minnesota offense choked.
Let's look at the impact of losing Lynch, first. It's no secret that Lynch has always been a superb shotblocker, maybe the best in all of college basketball during his time on the court.
You do not need a math degree to tell you that there is a substantial difference in opponent two-point percentage after Lynch left (solid maroon line is Minnesota's moving average, dashed line is 5-game moving average, solid pink line is D-1 average). Mind you, there are other variables, such as the fact that Minnesota was playing Big Ten teams after Lynch left, with no games against the likes of Alabama A&M. Still, it's worth noting.
(By the way, you can make these cool graphs yourself easily at barttorvik.com)
Another area where Lynch's absence mattered was with offensive rebounding.
Also, with Lynch and Coffey gone, defenses were free to key on Jordan Murphy (who was having a fine season to that point) and Nate Mason. This was the typical attention Murphy received from defenses in Big Ten play:
Ethan Happ is ostensibly guarding Bakary Konate, but he quickly transitions to "keep an eye on Jordan Murphy" mode. Eventually Iverson rotates to guard against the dump down to Konate, and it's at that point where literally no one is guarding Michael Hurt, who makes an ill-advised cut that almost leads to a turnover.
No one really needed to guard Hurt, because he was rarely a threat to score. In conference play, Hurt was logging starter's minutes, but made about one field goal a game. He shot just 39 percent on 2s, and his 63 percent on 3s strikes me as an unlikely repeat performance candidate. In those same games, he turned the ball over 16 times, which is quite high for his usage. One might even wonder if Hurt is overmatched at this level, but I highly doubt the coaching staff will nudge him in that direction.
But as long as he's on the floor, opponents will take advantage. In that same Wisconsin game, the Badgers put their most athletic player, Khalil Iverson, on Mason. Iverson can stay with Mason on drives, and has the length to bother his shots. Normally, you can expect to pay for purposeful mismatches elsewhere...unless the offense has a non-factor its mostly trying to hide. So Wisconsin just puts 6-3 Brevin Pritzl on 6-7 Michael Hurt because, hey, why not?
Hurt was not the only offender, Konate was even more of a non-factor offensively. With both of them on the floor, it was all too easy for defenses to shut down the Gophers.
Which brings us to this season. What's the plan?
Well, Mason is gone. Curry and Coffey return from injury. Promising freshman Isaiah Washington ideally makes a leap into sophmorehood. And there's a crop of incoming freshmen led by 6-10 center Daniel Oturu. Finally, the Gophers will get a 5th year from UW-Milwaukee transfer Brock Stull. Stull had a head-scratching season by his standards last year, converting on an impossibly-low 32 percent of 2s in conference play. He's not the tallest guy, but 6-4 is plenty tall in the Horizon League to avoid Mendoza status inside the arc. The season prior, on an even heavier shot diet on a worse team, Stull made 53 percent on such attempts.
I don't cover the Horizon League, so I have no clue what happened, but that's a crazy dropoff. His outside shot the past two seasons has hovered between 37 and 40 percent, so at minimum he should be a competent outside shooter.
Let me lay out something close to the best case scenario for this season. Brace yourself for the incoming "ifs." If Stull is something more than just a spot-up shooter, say slightly better than Washington's freshman year, Washington makes a leap, and no one slides, it's plausible to see Minnesota's offense make real gains.
If Curry makes real progress from his freshman season, there's a credible starting 5 (Washington, McBrayer, Coffey, Murphy, Curry) with a capable sixth man (Stull) and no obvious black holes. If Oturu is capable, now there's frontcourt depth that does not require heavy minutes from Hurt. All of this is probably not enough to make the Dance, but I wouldn't rule it out. It represents real progress from a very disappointing season, and should be enough to keep Richard Pitino off the hot seat.
That's the plan, at least.