On head coach Richard Pitino's most successful teams at Minnesota, freshmen have always made an impact. Amir Coffey and Eric Curry played significant roles on the 2016-17 NCAA Tournament team, as did Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur a season ago.
With the team's tournament hopes now hanging in the balance, the Gophers are in need of increased production from their role players. In order to find it, they may look to their four freshmen. The team has said that they feel these players will be important to the team's future success. But with Minnesota in need of victories, the future might be now.
"We just need everybody offensively and defensively connected at all times," Pitino said. "I don't want to play guys major, major minutes. I want to go to that bench and give guys opportunities, so we have to continue to develop that."
Of the bench options, freshman Tre' Williams has seen the most playing time. The guard has appeared in every game this season, averages 17 minutes per contest and has made five starts in place of redshirt junior Payton Willis, who has battled injuries. Williams ranks sixth on the team with 3.4 points per game.
The first of the group to commit to Minnesota, signing his letter of intent in November 2018, Williams benefited from a productive final year of high school ball at Wasatch Academy in Utah to climb the recruiting rankings. He ended as the No. 25 shooting guard recruit in his class according to 247 Sports. When it came time to make his decision, Williams says the Gophers stood out.
"It seems like everybody pours everything they have into all the sports here," Williams said. "They take care of all the athletes and there are just a lot of good people here."
In April 2019, Minnesota received another commitment from a talented prospect in forward Isaiah Ihnen. A four-star recruit, the native of Germany was an intriguing prospect, touting a 7-foot, 4-inch wingspan. Though unpolished, Ihnen possessed an exciting skill set that combined his length with ball skills rarely seen in a player his height.
Ihnen says he chose to play college basketball in the United States because of the previous success of European-born players, especially in the Big Ten, such as Moritz Wagner and Ignas Brazdeikis, who both played for Michigan. What first struck Ihnen was the passion for college basketball in America, something that is unrivaled in Europe.
"The only game that kind of had this experience was our All Star game in Germany," Ihnen said, comparing European to American basketball. "It can't even compare to this. I think there are 14,000 people who can fit into [Williams Arena], so I'm definitely excited for this."
A wrist injury forced Ihnen to miss the first two games of the season but he has appeared in 15 contests since. Pitino says he has been pleased with Ihnen's progress in gaining strength and getting up to speed in the college game. Results began to show in Sunday's game against Iowa. Ihnen played 16 minutes, making a positive impact in an otherwise frustrating 58-55 defeat by making a 3-pointer and grabbing three offensive rebounds.
"Isaiah was a very bright spot off the bench," Pitino said. "He had three blocked shots, had some good rebounds and was disruptive on the ball."
The final two freshmen on the team have seen limited action. Guard Bryan Greenlee and forward Sam Freeman have appeared in 15 and six games respectively, combining to play 56 minutes. Still, Williams says the group shares a close bond and is excited to grow with his teammates.
"I love my guys, we've been living together," Williams said. "We've built a good relationship so I'm just excited to play with them."