College basketball: Optimism abounds after Gophers exhibition win
Optimism abounds inside the historic walls of Williams Arena, which houses a preseason top-15 team for the first time in 24 years.
And for good reason.
Sophomore Amir Coffey could be among the Big Ten’s best players, Reggie Lynch is the conference’s reigning defensive player of the year, and Isaiah Washington brings hype as the program’s highest-rated out-of-state recruit in years.
But in the first of two exhibitions for the No. 15 Gophers men’s basketball team, who look to build on last season’s surprising NCAA tournament trip, Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy reminded that they are still the top players for a surging squad with Big Ten title aspirations.
Thursday night’s just-for-fun tilt against Concordia-St. Paul was a meaningless game in the record books, but first impressions from Mason and Murphy were strong in a 106-58 win over the Division II competition.
For all the hype around a supporting cast for Mason and Murphy that is expected to be better than any they’ve had, the two returning captains showed they will still power the Gophers.
“I thought they were really good,” head coach Richard Pitino said. “Both of them were efficient.”
Last season, Mason earned first-team All Big Ten honors behind 15.5 points per game, while Murphy landed on the second-team thanks to 11.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.
This season, if the Gophers are to reach expectations that are higher than any other point in Pitino’s five-year tenure, Mason and Murphy will again be relied on heavily.
While Thursday’s blowout win gave Pitino ample time to test reserves in game situations, Mason and Murphy set the tempo early. Eighteen of Murphy’s game-high 22 points came in the first half before he retreated to the bench for much of the second half following a 9-of-10 shooting performance. He added 11 rebounds in his 21 minutes of play.
“I think I’m starting to understand the game a lot more than I had the previous two years,” Murphy said. “And I’m just being patient with a lot of the stuff that we’re running.”
Mason, meanwhile, poured in 15 points from his customary point guard position and added six rebounds and five assists.
Together, they were easily the best players on the court Thursday night -- not a surprising feat, but still an important one as the Gophers gear up for the season opener next Friday against USC Upstate.
Last season, Mason led the Gophers with 518 points in 34 games. Another 518 points this season would leave Mason fifth all-time in career points with the Gophers, a chance to leave a lasting legacy after being the first player to commit to Pitino.
Murphy is still just a junior with potential to be the rare collegiate double-double forward, though he said rebounding is still the focus of his game.
″“His offensive game is really evolving,” Pitino said. “He’s understanding his spots in the offense a lot better. He’s a load down there too. He shot a three and I have no problem with that, but he also knows where his bread is buttered -- 11 rebounds is really good.”
The Gophers play their final exhibition game against Wisconsin-Green Bay on Sunday at Maturi Pavilion. Tickets are $10 and all proceeds go to relief efforts in Puerto Rico.