- After a promising 2016-17 season, Minnesota could be poised to contend for a top-four finish in the Big Ten in 2018.
The college basketball off-season is long and largely lacking in major news developments. Programs are still finalizing their 2017 recruiting classes and sorting out which of their players will return for another season or jump to the professional ranks. We’ve got a long way to go until Midnight Madness. To help pass the time, SI.com is asking and answering three key questions about each of the teams in our Way-Too-Early Top 25. Here’s No. 10, Minnesota.
1. Is this a Big Ten title contender?
Remarkably, not long removed from an eight-win 2015–16 season that (along with multiple off-court issues) put head coach Richard Pitino’s job security in jeopardy, the answer is an unequivocal yes. It’s unfair to put championship-or-bust expectations on a team that is in the same league with a now-overloaded Michigan State, thanks to the Spartans retaining the services of Miles Bridges for one more year. But a Minnesota team that won 24 games last year—11 in Big Ten play, good for a fourth-place finish—loses virtually nothing.
Just one rotation player, guard Akeem Springs, is gone. All four players who averaged double-figure scoring (Nate Mason, Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer) return. Protecting the glass shouldn’t be an issue: The Gophers had four players who saw time in 30-plus games and posted rebounding rates ranging from 13.6% to 16.8%, and all four of those guys are back. Pitino’s crew wound up as the 22nd most efficient defense in the country, per kenpom.com, and there should be a total philosophical carryover due to the lack of personnel attrition.
Oddly, for a team with such balance, the Gophers’ offense finished 77th nationally in adjusted efficiency. Improvement there is likely the key element to challenging for Big Ten supremacy.
2. Will homegrown product Coffey lead the way?
The 6’8” sophomore-to-be from Hopkins, Minn., probably should. The consensus No. 40 recruit in the Class of 2016 provided the immediate impact that the program needed, finishing as Minnesota’s second-leading scorer at 12.2 points per game. Coffey was no ball-stopper, either; his 10.6 shot attempts per 40 minutes ranked just fifth among rotation players. And Pitino probably should encourage his budding star forward to be even less inclined to share.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, Mason led Minnesota with a 24.8% possession rate, and his 0.905 points per possession ranked in just the 49th percentile nationally. Coffey, meanwhile, used just 19.2% of possessions, fifth among rotation players. Yet his 0.955 PPP rated in the 71st percentile nationally. Only McBrayer’s PPP figures (0.979, 77th percentile) were better among the Gophers’ top options.
If Minnesota is to be a more efficient offense—and the figure cited above suggests plenty of room for improvement there—a sensible first step would be featuring Coffey substantially more. Mason will run the show, sure. But the senior guard’s default setting should be deferring to the rising second-year star on the wing.
3. With another season of high-level success, how long is Pitino for Dinkytown?
It’s an intriguing dynamic to be sure. The 34-year-old Pitino is no novice. He was brought aboard by since-disgraced-and-fired athletic director Norwood Teague, and working for a guy who didn’t hire you is always a tenuous position—especially for a coach that endured epic on-and-off-court struggles in 2014–15. But guiding a team to the most league wins in two decades, and pointing to the Big Ten Coach of the Year trophy earned as a result, tends to ease the mind of administrators.
Looking way ahead, and admittedly presuming a lot, another top-four finish in the league likely would grab attention from schools looking for a coach in the spring of 2018. Would the departures of Mason (guaranteed) and Coffey (possible) inspire Pitino to get out while the getting is good, even with a decent amount of proven contributors set to return otherwise? Or would he be convinced the program is equipped to contend consistently after turning it around?
All of this probably depends on who’s calling and what a 2018 recruiting haul brings. (One top 100 player, 6’10” four-star forward Daniel Oturu of St. Paul, has committed already and the program has targeted multiple other top-100 prospects.) But Pitino will be a name worth monitoring as the carousel starts spinning next year.