Minnesota was college basketball’s biggest surprise last season. Now they’re just good

Richard Pitino had the type of season every coach on the hot seat dreams of last year: He captained college basketball’s biggest turnaround while silencing questions about his job security and elevating his program to legitimate top-25 status. Minnesota went from an eight-win team to a 24-win team overnight, making the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years.

Now Pitino’s mission is proving that last season’s upstart success is sustainable.

It helps that Pitino welcomes four starters back. Senior center Reggie Lynch might be the most important one. The Big Ten’s reigning defensive player of the year anchored a unit that finished No. 22 in the country in efficiency largely off the strength of his rim protection. Lynch denied 3.5 shots per game to post the second-best block rate in America.

The defense will again be the backbone of this team, but Pitino’s roster offers some intriguing pieces on offense, too. Shifty point guard Nate Mason is coming off a breakout junior season in which he averaged a team-high 15.5 points per game — while leaving plenty of room for improvement in terms of efficiency (37.6 percent from the field). 6’8 sophomore Amir Coffey should be one of the best wings in the Big Ten this season, while freshman point guard Isaiah Washington is set to provide some flair with his flashy ball handling and isolation scoring ability.

The Gophers haven’t been to the second weekend of the NCAA in 20 years, but this team has a real chance to do it. Pitino showed he can be one of the country’s brightest young coaches last season. Now he has to prove it was no fluke.

Projected lineup

PG Nate Mason

SG Dupree McBrayer

F Amir Coffey

F Jordan Murphy

C Reggie Lynch

Key reserves: G Isaiah Washington (freshman), F Davonte Fitzgerald (RS senior), C Bakary Konaté (senior), PF Daniel Oturu (freshman), G Jamir Harris (freshman)

What happened last season?

All Minnesota did last season was stake college basketball’s most impressive single-season turnaround to win 24 games and head into the NCAA tournament with a No. 5 seed next to their name.

Credit the Gophers for fighting when things started to get tough. Pitino’s team responded to a five-game losing streak at the start of conference season by winning its next eight Big Ten games, ultimately finishing fourth in the conference. For such a promising season, the end was bitter: a first-round exit to Middle Tennessee in a 5-12 upset that wasn’t really an upset.

With so many key pieces back, the Gophers won’t be surprising anyone this year. Making the NCAA tournament isn’t good enough anymore. Now Pitino’s team needs to win once it gets there.

Who’s the star?

Mason runs the show on offense and led the team in scoring last season. Lynch is one of the country’s premier shot blockers and the anchor of a sturdy defense. Either would be a fine choice to be Minnesota’s leading man, but we’re going with Amir Coffey.

Coffey is a Minnesota native whose father also once starred for the Gophers. He was one of the most touted recruits in program history as the No. 32 prospect in the class of 2016. He lived up to the hype as a freshman as a smooth 6’8 lefty wing who could score from three levels. Coffey was second on the team is scoring (12.2 points per game) last year and has the talent to assert himself as one of the better players in the conference this year.

There’s no denying Mason’s value to this team, but Minnesota would be in better shape if Coffey had the ball in his hands more often. He can create for himself and others — finishing second on the team with 3.1 assists per game. If his three-point shooting can improve from 33.7 percent last year, he could have a chance to be the first Minnesota player taken in the NBA draft since Kris Humphries in 2004.

Here’s some more Amir Coffey highlights, if you’re interested.

Why Minnesota can be better than last year

Experience and balance. Minnesota is bringing back its four leading scorers from last year plus the best defensive player in the Big Ten.

Junior Dupree McBrayer is a capable shooter in the backcourt next to Mason. Coffey is a high-upside wing. Jordan Murphy was third-team all-conference as a sophomore last season as a 6’6 power forward who dominates the glass and can score inside.

Minnesota is also adding a human highlight reel in New York native Isaiah Washington. The No. 68 recruit in the class of 2017, Washington isn’t only a big-time prospect, he’s also electric to watch. His personal style sparked the “JellyFam” movement that even had LeBron James and John Wall copying him.

Washington won’t have to be a savior for Minnesota as a freshman, but he should get plenty of playing time. He could be a star for this program before long.

What’s this team’s biggest weakness?

Efficient scoring. As a team, Minnesota finished with an effective field goal percentage of just 48.7 percent last year, which ranked No. 246 in D1. That’s not good. Mason’s inefficiency on two-point shots (38.3 percent) was a big reason why. It doesn’t help that Minnesota also starts two bigs with no shooting range in Murphy and Lynch at a time when everyone else is going small.

Minnesota lost just one starter from last season in Akeem Springs, but he was also their best three-point shooter. Mason and/or Coffey need to make a jump if this team is going to score as well as it can defend.

Anything else?

Papa Pitino deserved to get roasted for that tiny football jersey. Richard knows what he’s doing.

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