On Tuesday night, the Minnesota men's basketball team began its quest for a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance against Cleveland State.
The Gophers gave fans at The Barn a first look at many new players and a revamped offense featuring improved shooting. In the offseason, the NCAA moved the 3-point line back to 22 feet, 1 3/4 inches, but that didn't seem to matter as Minnesota shot 44.8% from downtown in a 85-50 victory.
"They started zone [defense] and they were giving us that," head coach Richard Pitino said. "Those guys can shoot. Payton [Willis] can shoot, Gabe [Kalscheur] can shoot, Marcus [Carr] can shoot. So, if you're open you have to take what the defense gives you."
Before the season, Pitino expected that the Gophers would shoot more 3-pointers, a trend that was evident immediately on Tuesday. Minnesota's first five field goal attempts all came from behind the arc, the first four of which rimmed out. However, sophomore Gabe Kalscheur then sank a shot from the corner and the Gophers went on to make three of their first eight 3-point shots.
After leading by three points, Minnesota leaned on its outside shooting during a 19-1 run that extended the lead to 34-13 with 3:03 remaining in the first half. Kalscheur, redshirt sophomore Marcus Carr and redshirt junior Payton Willis all knocked down multiple threes before halftime, as they combined for 18 of the team's 19 3-point field goal attempts before the break.
"That should be a strength of ours this year," Willis said. "The versatility on offense and the ability to shoot will win us a lot of games."
In the second half, Minnesota's offense continued to function smoothly, pushing the lead to 24 points at the under-12 minute timeout. The advantage continued to grow from there, reaching as many as 39 points as the team went 6-10 on 3-point attempts in the second half.
"What I liked about the game is we had seven new guys, we didn't look like we were trying to figure each other out," Pitino said. "We were pretty connected out there."
Throughout the game, Minnesota managed to find their sharp-shooting guards for open looks. The team's 26 assists were the most in a game since last season's opener against Nebraska-Omaha.
"We're well aware of our ability to pass the ball, move the ball and share the ball together," Carr said. "This team just has a pretty high basketball IQ and a good awareness of where guys like to get shots and where guys are most comfortable and efficient in scoring."
Sophomore Daniel Oturu started his new campaign with a stand-out performance, bearing the load for a Gophers front court missing redshirt junior Eric Curry, who will miss the season with a torn ACL, and freshman Isaiah Ihnen, who sat out with a wrist injury. Oturu finished with a double-double, scoring 16 points and recording a game-high 10 rebounds.
Carr led all scorers with 18 points, also adding eight assists and seven rebounds. Willis scored 17 points, going 5-8 from three while also contributing 8 assists. The backcourt duo said they became comfort playing together on the scout team last season while sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules.
"We've gotten used to each other's game now," Carr said. "We know where we're going to be on the court. We communicate a lot when we're out there."
Senior Alihan Demir, playing in his first game with the Gophers after transferring from Drexel, was the fourth player scoring in double-digits for Minnesota, with all 10 of his points coming in the second half.
Minnesota will hit the road next, playing a neutral site game against Oklahoma on Nov. 9 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. After that, they will have back-to-back true road games against Butler and Utah.
"Now you just get some rest and you turn the page," Pitino said. "This schedule is the toughest I've been a part of. Your second, your third, your fourth game are just tremendous opportunities."