'It'll get real here very, very soon': Pitino, Gophers open season Tuesday against Cleveland State

A new season begins for the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team Tuesday night at Williams Arena, and Gophers fans may want to have a game program before they take their seats.

More specifically, a roster sheet. The Gophers return just two starters, sophomores Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur, from last year’s team that got to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years, and won a game in the Big Dance for the first time under seventh-year coach Richard Pitino.

Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer graduated, and Amir Coffey is pursuing a professional career with the L.A. Clippers. They’re also without redshirt junior Eric Curry, who tore the ACL in his right knee in an early practice after dealing with season-ending foot and knee injuries in each of the past two seasons.

The Gophers will look vastly different from past teams, and that’s not all bad. Pitino doesn’t know a lot about his team yet, but he’ll find out in a hurry. They've got seven new faces, which is the most for the program since the 2004-05 season.

“I’ve never been around a team that’s had seven new players. That’s probably the uncertainty of just knowing anything. Exhibitions are different, scrimmages are different, playing in Italy is different. It’ll get real here very, very soon, so I’ll learn it then.”

The Gophers host Cleveland State Tuesday night, a program Pitino admitted he knows very little about. He will be without forward Isaiah Ihnen, his highest-rated 2019 recruit, as the freshman continues to recover from a right wrist injury. Pitino said he’s hopeful to have him Saturday, when the Gophers play a non-conference game against Oklahoma at the Sanford Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Pitino knows what he’ll get from his two returning starters. Oturu was an inside force last season, finishing third on the team in scoring at 10.8 points per game and second with seven rebounds per game. Kalscheur averaged 10 points per game, was the Gophers’ top perimeter threat at 41 percent and often guarded the opponent’s top offensive player.

Minnesota’s top newcomers include guards Marcus Carr and Payton Willis, who each sat out last year after transferring from Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt, respectively. In Minnesota’s exhibition win over Southwest Minnesota State last week, the two combined for 26 points, 12 assists and just two turnovers. They’re virtually interchangeable in the backcourt.

“We kind of talk about what we think we can do as far as being one of the strongest back courts in the country, to be honest,” Carr said at the team’s recent media day. “We know we have that potential, we can come out here and do that.”

The other newcomers are Drexel grad transfer Alihan Demir, who can play in the post and shoot from the perimeter, and freshman Tre Williams, Ihnen, Sam Freeman and BJ Greenlee.

The Gophers should get a sense of where they’re at pretty early. After hosting Cleveland State, the face Oklahoma on a neutral court before traveling to Butler and Utah. They also face Clemson in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, travel to Oklahoma State and have December Big Ten games at Iowa and hosting Ohio State.

“It is beneficial for us to play a tough schedule. It’s beneficial for your fans, who want to see really good opponents. It’s beneficial for your basketball program. We get judged by NCAA Tournament or not, that’s just the reality of the profession that we’re in,” Pitino said. “The more opportunities, the more good win opportunities you get, the better for everybody.”

It’s a group that’s had to gel in the offseason, in Italy and early in fall practices. It might take time for chemistry to form on the court. And it’s a group that should play with a chip on their shoulder.

Preseason polls have Minnesota finishing 11th of 14 teams in the Big Ten.

“I understand we’ve got seven new players. Almost always when you have that many they’re going to pick you towards the bottom. I’m not a big disrespect card guy,” Pitino said. “No sense talking about it, we’ve got some great opportunities the first couple weeks to show either we’re a good team or we’re not.”