We are back with another Corn Nation Interrogation! Today we have Steve Bailey from our SB Nation sister site The Daily Gopher. Nebraska heads up to the Great White North to take on the Golden Gophers this Wednesday. Thankfully Steve gave us a great update on this years squad and what to expect when tip-off arrives.
Corn Nation: What were the expectations of Minnesota going into coach Richard Pitino’s sixth season from the fan base and those around the program?
Steve Bailey: I’d say the overwhelming opinion among the fan base is that Pitino is in a make-or-break year. Two years ago they had a surprise run to the NCAA Tournament as a 5-seed and looked like they had the wind at their backs heading into last year. Pitino was the conference coach of the year and things appeared to be headed in the right direction. Last year, everything exploded with injuries and off-court problems, which sapped the roster of four of its five starters. Much of it was beyond Pitino’s control, and I don’t think many reasonable people will blame last year’s disaster on him.
But this year is a different story. He’s got a full roster with three upperclassmen leaders who are deeply engrained in the program. An NCAA Tournament berth is expected, and if the Gophers fail to make the postseason this year I think things could get messy.
CN: Minnesota has played some decent games with their only losses to Boston College and #16 Ohio State. What did you see in those games that you think the Minnesota will build on?
SB: Murphy has been really good, and looks every bit like a 1st Team All-Conference guy. He’s second in the country in rebounding and already has six double-doubles this year. He’s a true staple and teams have had a really difficult time stopping him. The Gophers have also seen surprise performances from one of their true freshmen, Gabe Kalscheur. Kalscheur has had a super hot hand from three-point land this season already, and has scored in droves on multiple occasions. He’s hit multiple threes in every game except one, and even hit a game-winning three against Washington. He’s been much better than advertised.
CN: Can Minnesota make a run this year in the Big Ten? Will they have what it takes to make it to the top? Why or why not?
SB: I don’t think they have the consistency to win the conference, they’re relying too heavily on true freshmen this year. But I do think they have a chance to finish in the top five if they can get consistent play from their upperclassmen: Murphy, Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer. Those three together can win games without much help, but they haven’t put together a full game between them yet this year. From a high level, if the Gophers can improve their shooting they will go really far. And that’s what’s going to make or break this team this year -- their ability to finish shots and make plays. That’s been a struggle recently.
CN: What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of this team?
SB: They have a solid core of guys who have played together for quite a while, so they do pretty well in pressure situations. I’ve counted four times this year that they’ve withstood strong second half pushes from opponents and haven’t wilted. Have they played poorly in some games? Yes. But they haven’t given up any leads down the stretch which speaks to their character. While they’re getting a ton of good shots, they haven’t been converting, which was a direct reason they got decimated on the road against Ohio State. They’re really good at drawing fouls and getting to the line as well.
Weaknesses include not having a reliable starting point guard. It’s really starting to have an impact on offensive efficiency and I don’t see much help in sight. They’ve tried moving Coffey there, but he’s just too much of scorer to force him into floor general duties. We’re still waiting for Isaiah Washington to develop and, frankly, I’m not sure if that will happen to the degree we need. Finally, they just haven’t been able to shoot well. It’s basketball. You gotta make shots to score points and win games. 43% from the field isn’t going to cut it. Oh, and they can’t play against a zone defense.
CN: Amir Coffey has been moved to point guard this season. Was it a good move? How has the transition been?
SB: That was the idea before the season started, but in practice they really haven’t had an official point guard. He’s definitely been a co-point guard, if you want to look at it that way, but he’s largely been splitting time with McBrayer and Washington at the point. Coffey is a natural scorer, so that type of talent is largely wasted when he’s forced to handle the ball, and he doesn’t look super comfortable doing it. Honestly, were all hoping that Washington finally figures it out and takes the reins, but at this point were in the market for a starting point guard (sigh).
CN: Who are some of the players Nebraska fans should keep and eye on when they come up to Minneapolis? Who could really cause a problem for the Cornhuskers?
SB: Obviously you’re going to need to watch out for Murphy. He’s just a walking double-double. Coffey will light you up if you’re not careful as well, and is a lock for 10+ points. He’s a playmaker and can create his own shot when he needs to. I mentioned Kalscheur earlier, but he’s really been fun to watch. He’s been lethal from deep, so if he’s left alone it can get interesting in a hurry.
CN: Finally, what do you think will happen on Wednesday and what is your prediction for the game?
SB: The Gophers have played poorly on the road and have only played two true home games. I really don’t like the way these two teams match up this early in the season. I think the Huskers take this one by five.
Thanks again to Steve for taking part in our interrogation. Follow the Steve on Twitter @zipsofakron and The Daily Gopher @thedailygopher for more Minnesota Golden Gopher updates.