Richard Pitino doesn’t know when the Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s basketball season will start amid the coronavirus pandemic, and Minnesota’s head coach is unsure which opponents might be on nonconference schedule.
But what Pitino believes is when the campaign does eventually tip off, theGophers will have “one of the best backcourts” in the Big Ten in Marcus Carr and Gabe Kalscheur.
Carr ended his exploration of the NBA to return to Minnesota in July, and Kalscheur is expected to bounce back from a down shooting year in 2019-20. Both will be experienced juniors.
“When you have good guards, you have a chance,” Pitino said Thursday in a conference call signaling the official start of preseason camp. “Those guys give us a really good chance. I think our backcourt has a chance to compete with anybody.”
And there could be a new pair of complimentary players around that starting duo. First up is Utah transfer Both Gach, for whom Minnesota will seek an NCAA waiver to play immediately this season.
“We will get that submitted soon,” Pitino said. “It was more of a matter of gathering all of the information, which took some time. We feel like we are at the end of that process now and we can submit that. If he gets the waiver, which we anticipate, he is another guy to go along with (transfer center) Liam (Robbins) that we feel can be an impact guy right away.”
Gach, a 6-foot-6 wing from Austin, Minn., would figure into a three-guard starting lineup. Behind that guard trio will be 6-2 freshman Jamal Mashburn Jr.
“For J, he never gets tired, fearless competitor. Very very confident because he’s put in the work,” Pitino said. “I think he’s very undervalued because of the Rick Pitino-Jamal Mashburn connection (at Kentucky). I think people neglect how good he really is because of that. That’s OK. He will let his play do the talking.”
Pitino compared Mashburn, a four-star recruit, to former Minnesota standout point guard Nate Mason.
“Just tough, physical, competitive and has a really good mid-range game,” Pitino said. “Defends, doesn’t look like a freshmen out there at all. He is going to figure out ways to make me play him, and that’s a good thing.”
Pitino said Carr has returned from his hometown in Toronto in “terrific” shape” He set Minnesota's single-season assist record while leading the Big Ten in minutes last season.
Pitino isn’t hung up on how Kalscheur shot 34 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore, down from 41 percent from deep as a freshman.
“We probably under-appreciate Gabe. I don’t,” Pitino said. “He wasn’t making shots at the rate that we were accustomed to last year, but he does so many little things. He guards the team’s best player. He’s durable. He’s reliable. He works hard. He practices hard. He plays hard. There will be no drop off with him. I think he’s prime for a terrific year.”
Despite the rave review and his bloodline, Mashburn is a true freshman that hasn’t played in the Big Ten. Same goes for projected starting power forward Brandon Johnson, a graduate transfer from Western Michigan.
While that technically goes for Robbins as well, Pitino isn’t worried about the 7-footer’s learning curve from the Missouri Valley Conference. The Davenport, Iowa, native has impressed in early practices.
“I think he saw what we were able to do with Daniel (Oturu) and how we utilized Daniel last year,” Pitino said. “I don’t see why there should be any type of drop off, to be honest.”
Pitino said he couldn’t confirm if the Gophers will be a part of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament, originally scheduled for mid-November, an inclusion the program announced in June. But he hopes there is a 27-game schedule that includes the now-normal 20 Big Ten games.
“Quite frankly, you’re going to have to anticipate some type of disruption,” Pitino said about playing a season outside of a bubble. “That is just the reality of it.”
Overall, the Gophers have six newcomers who aren’t necessary driven by last season’s 15-16 finish. But Carr and Kalscheur lived through it.
“I think our guys are dying to get back to it,” Pitino said.