The Gophers men’s basketball team had their second to last practice on Thursday before head coach Richard Pitino and his squad embark on a nine-day trip to Italy. During the trip, the team will travel to Rome, Florence and Como, playing a game in each city and taking in the sights.
Pitino is excited for his team to go on the trip. With a handful of new players, it’s a time for them to grow together without the everyday difficulties of being a student athlete in season.
“They’re going to have fun,” he said. “When you get into the middle of the season the fun gets taken away a little bit because there’s stress, there’s academics, there’s all those things.”
Not only is the head coach excited, the players are looking forward to it as well.
“I think it will be just a great bonding experience,” said senior forward Michael Hurt. “Obviously, we have a lot of new faces. It will be a good opportunity to hang with each other a lot on and off the court.”
Losing Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy means that the Gophers will need a few players to fill their shoes as leaders. Pitino has lauded Hurt for his leadership, but one of the new faces Gopher fans will see this season is taking control of the team.
“Marcus Carr’s got very good leadership qualities for a redshirt sophomore,” Pitino said. “He’s more of a natural leader.”
The transfer from the University of Pittsburgh is slotted as the starting point guard and is already making an impact this summer, but he’s not the only one. It’s hard to not notice freshman Isaiah Ihnen from Germany. The 6-foot-9 forward turned heads at practice with his athleticism. His skills were on full display as he threw down effortless dunks and drained a corner 3-pointer while being heavily guarded to open up the team scrimmage.
“Really, really smart, high basketball I.Q., really talented,” Pitino said about Ihnen. “When you watch him, you can see that’s a talented-looking player. Put on a little bit of weight, and the sky is the limit for him.”
Alihan Demir, a senior grad transfer from Drexel, will be joining Ihnen as NCAA players who have come over from Europe. Demir is from Ankara, Turkey and has made a smooth transition to the team.
“He’s jumped in and is as comfortable and playing as well as any fifth-year senior at this stage since I’ve had one,” Pitino said.
Demir and Ihnen will be part of a shifting offense that has taken emphasis away from attacking the basket, and is moving toward a perimeter-focused attack.
Coming into practice, Hurt, sophomore Daniel Oturu and Demir were practicing their 3-point shooting before practice had even begun. Pitino is looking to vastly improve his team in that area, which was one of the worst in the NCAA last season. This means getting the big men involved on the perimeter.
“It’s important to have four guys on the court who can shoot,” Pitino said. “When you can space the court with four guys, maybe five, it opens up driving lanes, spreads the defense out.”
With Murphy gone, Oturu will be the man down in the low post for the Gophers. The sophomore ended his freshman season averaging 10 points and seven rebounds per game, and the team is expecting him to continue to make big strides in year two.
“Daniel is very, very productive, he’s very skilled around the basket,” Pitino said. “It’s just the next step with the little things: screening, blocking out, little things that freshman aren’t used to doing.”
Despite the different offense and many new players, the Gophers have big things in mind as they head into the season.
“For the season, our goal is to make it to the NCAA Tournament and make some noise,” Hurt said.