Time flies—this will be Richard Pitino's 7th season as the head coach of Minnesota, and I'm legitimately shocked that his seat is apparently ice cold. One Tournament berth every four years or so, that's enough? The Gophers have one NCAA Tournament win in his 6 seasons, last year's cathartic win over Louisville, which might have netted the younger Pitino an extra birthday gift or two from Dad. At the very least, it earned Richard a contract extension.
Still, last year's roster was fairly experienced, and many of the significant contributors (Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer) aren't coming back. We're also not talking about a juggernaut that will merely take a step back—Minnesota was a 10-seed, a weekly guest in every Bubble Watch column, and it wasn't until Carsen Edwards' three-point attempt bounced off the back iron in the Big Ten Tournament was Minnesota's dance invite finalized.
That's not the steadiest jumping off point for "and now you lose your two best players."
Minnesota's primary problem last year was that the team couldn't shoot. No Big Ten team attempted fewer three-pointers, the line moving back is works against a reversal of that stat. Despite that selectivity, the Gophers made under 32 percent of their attempts from deep, good for a cool 300th in the country. To his credit, Pitino worked at addressing that issue over the past couple of seasons. Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis is eligible (35% from 3 as a sophomore). So is Marcus Carr, from Pitt (33% as a freshman). Grad transfer Alihan Demir...well, he hasn't always been a good three point shooter (28% last year at Drexel), but he's willing (71 attempts)!
Now, as the percentages above demonstrate, none of the newcomers are likely to set the nets on fire. But respectability is a real goal here, and that's achievable when you consider the sharpshooting Gabe Kalscheur (41% as a freshman) is back. Minnesota just needs the defense to be something resembling honest, because I suspect that sophomore big man Daniel Oturu figures to be the centerpiece of the offense. He was not far off last season, consuming nearly a quarter of the team's possessions while on the floor, and doing so efficiently (54% on 2s, manageable turnover rate of 16 in conference play). I'd expect the usual sophomore leap out of Oturu, who could push for all-conference honors. The big man displayed unusual confidence with his handle last year, and that should pay dividends as his turnover rate likely declines this year.
For what it's worth, that type of progression might be more difficult for Kalscheur, who was a selective shooter last year and already very efficient at what he did (wait for open shot, make open shot). Improving his performance means diversifying his game with increased defensive attention. Not easy, that.
But it's also not impossible. There were signs that he could do some of those other things.
Becoming a real threat off the bounce is going to pay huge dividends for Kalscheur, because defenses will get sloppy about staying on top of screens. And if you go under a screen set for Kalscheur, that's usually a bad thing.
I do think it's possible that there's enough outside shooting and sophomore improvement here to make up for the 3 lost starters on offense. On defense, however, the team might be lucky to preserve its mediocre performance from last season (12th in defensive efficiency in Big Ten play). Despite the presence of Oturu as a rim protector, the Gophers were pretty forgiving on opponent 2s (49.5%, 12th in Big Ten play). The presence of two frontcourt players in Murphy and Oturu also cruelly penalized the team in forcing turnovers (11th). Even more bizarre was the team's mediocre performance on the defensive glass (8th) despite Oturu and Murphy ranking as the 5th and 3rd-best in the conference in defensive rebounding percentage. Pitino played big, and got all of the downsides with none of the upsides, it seems.
With the 6-9 Demir alongside Oturu (in a happier world, Eric Curry would be getting a shot. Alas.), it seems like he's still going to play big, but now with even less potential for upside. Demir was not a shotblocker at Drexel, and it's extremely unlikely he will rebound as well as Murphy did. The simple fact is that none of the new faces Pitino welcomes this year were brought on for their defense. I expect the statsheet to reflect that.
All in all, I see a rebuilding year for Minnesota, one that isn't likely to do wonders for Pitino's 36% winning percentage in Big Ten play. Still, he's probably still safe for at least another season. I have to admit, I find all of this odd, after they fired the last guy after winning 43% of his Big Ten games, who went to one more Tournament than Pitino, and who was fired immediately after having a season that is nearly identical to the one Pitino just turned in. I don't pine for the days of Tubby by any means, but it seems a precedent has been overruled here, and I'm not sure why.