Gopher basketball previewed as season opens

AnotherViewsquareSome of the silliest questions are often heard at sports media days. Here’s two of them: Can you do better than last year, one of the worst in men’s Gopher history? Can you do without Rachel Banham on the women’s team? These came up during last week’s Minnesota basketball media days.

When we asked players if they can recall how many times reporters asked them this, both junior Bakary Konate and senior Allina Starr told the MSR they couldn’t put a number on it, but it was multiple times.

“We have a goal to become a championship team,” said Konate on the Gopher men moving past last year’s 8-23 season, including 2-16 in the Big Ten last season. One of three returning starters from last year, the 6’-11” center said he spent the off-season working on body strength, shooting from different angles on the court, and developing a better game that avoids foul trouble.

Allina Starr
Allina Starr Photo by Sophia Hantzes

Sophomore guard Dupree McBrayer went back to his native New York City, hung out with friends, “and was in the gym a lot”  during the summer, he reported. “Coming into my sophomore year, I want to play like a junior,” added the 6’-5” guard.

The Minnesota women made the WNIT second round, the only basketball team at the school to see March Madness action. This is year one without Rachel Banham, last year’s Big Ten Player of the Year and now in the WNBA, who averaged nearly 29 points a game — 30 points in Big Ten games — and hit at least 40 points three times, including a 60-point game.

“There is only one Rachel Banham,” stated Starr. “Thank God for her last year.

Nikita Lowry Dawkins
Nikita Lowry Dawkins Photo by Sophia Hantzes

“I think we are able to have a balanced team this year. I think this team is able to fill all those 50 points with people. It doesn’t have to be one person,” said the 5’-10” guard.

“We are more athletic, can get up and down and do more things offensively and defensively,” noted Gopher Associate Head Coach Nikita Lowry Dawkins of this year’s squad, with six returners and nine newcomers. “I think we have the talent, the will and the athleticism to do so. I’m excited to see how quickly we come together and see what we can do.”

Men’s Coach Richard Pitino pointed out that his squad this season will get key contributions from several newcomers as well — transfers Akeem Springs and Reggie Lynch, both eligible to play this year, and freshmen Eric Curry, Michael Hurt and Amir Coffey.

“Eric and Michael are really talented freshmen,” Pitino told reporters, including the MSR. “I’m very excited for him and Michael, too.” The fourth-year coach added that Coffey’s passing has been impressive and he will “play major minutes” as well. “We have a lot of players and a lot of options. That’s a great problem for me to have,” he said.

The Minnesota women’s basketball team officially begins its 2016-17 schedule Saturday at home against Harvard (2 pm). Third-year Head Coach Marlene Stollings said the early schedule, which includes top-10 contender South Carolina on the road (Dec. 11), is right for her squad if they hope to make the NCAAs in March. “If you love to play basketball, you love playing against the top-level teams. Our kids are really excited about it,” said Stollings.

The Minnesota men also officially open play at home against Louisiana Lafayette (7 pm) Friday. “We have a tough schedule,” concluded Pitino. “We got to be ready.”

 

Read a tribute to one of St. Paul’s greatest athletes and see our Big Ten women’s basketball preview on MSR News Online. Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.