MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino wrote one word on the board before the team's exhibition game at Williams Arena last week.
As in, what will be the characteristics of his team in 2019-20? The Gophers lost two stars and other role players from last season’s NCAA tournament team and will need to backfill with seven newcomers.
“Our last two tournament teams had an identity,” Pitino said after the 73-48 exhibition win over Southwest Minnesota State. “Physical, tough, rebound the ball, get fouled. I don’t know what this team’s identity is going to be. That is one thing that I told them is that you have to develop an identity every time you step out on the court.”
The beginnings of the Gophers’ new brand of basketball will start in the season opener against Cleveland State at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5, at the Barn. Minnesota then plays Oklahoma in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Saturday, followed by games at Butler and Utah next week.
Gophers players break down practice on the word “tough,” an identifying trait that emanated from forward Jordan Murphy — the Big Ten’s second all-time leading rebounder — through his senior season last year.
“We’ve used the word ‘tough’ a lot,” Pitino said last week. “We’ve said it a lot. We’ve got to look tough as well.”
Transfer guards Payton Willis, who is expected to start alongside fellow transfer Marcus Carr, said they are still trying to carve out what that toughness looks like. “We want to be able to win games, ugly games, and be physical,” he said.
This year’s Gophers want to distance themselves from one of their worst attributes from a year ago: a lack of 3-point shooting beyond returning starter Gabe Kalscheur.
“I think we can shoot the basketball pretty well at times,” Pitino said. “We take good shots. I think Payton and Gabe are high-high-level 3-point shooters. Marcus can hit them, a little bit streaky at times, but he can hit him. Daniel (Oturu) is starting to hit them a little bit. Alihan (Demir) can hit them. I think everybody on the team besides Sam (Freeman) can hit a three, so that is going to space the court a little bit.”
But the Gophers are small other than for Oturu, a 6-foot-10 center, with forward/center Eric Curry out for the season with a knee injury.
“We are undersized,” Pitino said. “We are going to have to be very fundamental and we are going to have to be really disciplined. And again, it’s like I talked about to our team, if we are constantly talking about ‘we’re young,’ we’re probably losing, and I don’t want to talk about that all the time.”
Pitino knows the primary judgement comes down to whether Minnesota makes the NCAA tournament, something he’s now done twice in the past three seasons.
This year’s Gophers aren’t expected to go back. They were picked to finish 11th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten, according to 28 beat writers. Sagarin rating has the Gophers at 62nd in the nation and 11th in the conference, while Pomeroy rankings has them at 81st nationally and 12th in the league.
“I understand it. We’ve got seven new players,” Pitino said. “Almost always when you have that many new players, they are going to pick you toward the bottom. I’m not a big disrespect-card guy. People are doing their jobs and they don’t know much about our team.”
True freshman forward Isaiah Ihnen won’t play Tuesday because of an injury to his right shooting wrist. Pitino says he is “hopeful” Ihnen can play in Saturday’s game against Oklahoma. He was out for the exhibition game, too. … Pitino’s Coaches vs. Cancer fundraiser brought in $120,000 on Sunday, he said, for a total of $450,000 in five years. “We appreciate that very very much,” Pitino said, “and hopefully we can improve that ever single year.”