MINNEAPOLIS -- The rightful focus was on Jordan Murphy when coach Richard Pitino subbed out his star forward late in the Gophers’ loss to Michigan State in an NCAA tournament second-round game Saturday, March 23.
Now, with the 2018-19 season over, the attention shifts, in part, to reserve freshman forward Jarvis Omersa, who replaced Murphy for the last 90 seconds of a 70-50 loss at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.
Finding a way to replace Murphy’s record-breaking rebounding, post scoring and by-example leadership will be the biggest offseason job for Pitino.
Murphy never directly told Omersa how he’ll now need to step up, but the message has been delivered.
“Coach P has said it,” Omersa said.
In all likelihood, it will take more than Omersa to rival Murphy’s production: 14.4 points, a Big Ten-best 11.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 31 minutes across all 36 games as a senior.
“That’s hard to replace,” Pitino said. “As hard as (Saturday) was, hopefully it helps build Jarvis’ confidence. He hasn’t played a lot, but I do think he can (use) that performance. I think he did a lot of great things. He played great defense. He played hard, rebounded the ball well.”
Against the Spartans, Omersa had two points, seven rebounds and three steals, showing some of the athleticism and energy he can bring.
The biggest frontcourt boost for the Gophers would be the continued development of freshman center Daniel Oturu. While Omersa sat out 10 of the U’s 24 games against Big Ten foes this season, Oturu started 31 of 36 games overall, averaging nearly 24 minutes.
Omersa, 6 feet 6, averaged about a point and rebound per game, while 6-foot-10 Oturu put up 10.8 points, seven rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. He has tools to score around the basket but can be more assertive in transition and protecting the basket.
A preseason shoulder injury limited how much muscle Oturu, who’s listed at 225 pounds, could add coming out of Cretin-Derham Hall High School.
“Daniel is going to be really, really good player,” Pitino said. “He’s put only a little bit of weight, and he’ll get there.”
Uncertain is how well center Eric Curry will return from season-ending foot surgery, which cost him the final seven games. Reconstructive knee surgery killed his entire sophomore season, and a setback to that knee kept him out of the first 12 games this season. He also missed two midseason games with a calf injury.
The Gophers have only one player in the 2019 recruiting class, 6-5 guard Marvin “Tre” Williams III from Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant, Utah.
Frontcourt reinforcements will be needed to help fill holes left not just by Murphy, but backup center Matz Stockman. He contributed 3.0 points and 2.1 rebounds in 10.7 minutes across 27 games before a concussion kept him out the final three postseason games.
“We’ll continue to see what we can add in the spring,” Pitino said about recruiting and potential incoming transfers. “When you win like we did, when you have guys who got better, you have local kids who have had a great experience, there is a lot to sell.”
The Gophers’ backcourt will also see transition. All told, adding departures of Dupree McBrayer and and Brock Stull, the Gophers lose 39 percent of their scoring and 45 percent of their rebounds and assists per game.
More will be asked of wing Amir Coffey, thrust into point guard responsibilities last season. When the Gophers needed to win games down the stretch to make the NCAA tournament, Coffey was the alpha, averaging 23.5 points in the final eight games. He averaged team highs 16.6 and 3.2 assists across all 36 games.
“Just kept working throughout the year,” Coffey said Saturday. “Just developing everything — shooting, dribbling, and just otherwise mind-set things, how I carried myself in the games and just figuring out ways to affect the game.”
Pittsburgh transfer Marcus Carr, who wasn’t granted a hardship waiver last season, is expected to alleviate Coffey’s ball-handing duties. Carr averaged 10 points and four assists in all 32 games for the Panthers last season.
Fellow transfer Payton Willis, a 6-4 guard from Vanderbilt, and Williams are top potential replacements for McBrayer, who averaged 8.9 points, 3.0 assists and 2.2 rebounds last season.
“Really excited about Tre, who we’ve got signed. He’s going to be a terrific player,” Pitino said. “Marcus and Payton, two guys sitting out, (are) really good.”
Then there’s sophomore point guard Isaiah Washington, who didn’t get off the bench in six of the Gophers’ last eight games. He did contribute nine points in 24 minutes against the Spartans.
Washington said he and Pitino have “had plenty of talks” about how he can get into the rotation. “When we get back, we’ll have another good one and just get ready for next season,” Washington said.
For the Gophers to reach another NCAA tournament without Murphy next season, improved 3-point shooting would help ease the burden on in the frontcourt to replace Murphy’s production. The Gophers took a Big Ten-low 603 shots from behind the arc last season; they made 31.7 percent of them, 11th in Big Ten.
Freshman shooting guard Gabe Kalscheur was the team’s lone bright spot from deep. He shot 40.9 percent from behind the arc and averaged an even 10 points in 36 starts. He made five 3-point shots en route to a game-high 24 points in the U’s first-round NCAA tournament win over Louisville. From the beginning of the season, he showed poise, and by the end, was often Gophers’ best perimeter defender.
Before the curtain call Saturday, Murphy’s bad back limited to four minutes against the Spartans, and the Gophers desperately missed his rebounding, getting out-worked 45-19, and became too reliant on shooting 3s, going 2 for 22. Kalscheur was 0 for 4.
“We had a great season,” Kalscheur said. “We did a lot of good things, and had some ups and obviously bad things as well. But we can take the momentum and do a lot of good things next year.”