MINNEAPOLIS -- The Gophers’ 6-foot-8 freshman guard Isaiah Ihnen hit a corner three-pointer and made an athletic steal on the defensive end in the first two plays of a intra-squad scrimmage Thursday, Aug. 1.
For a minute, the early departure of Amir Coffey to the NBA didn’t sting so bad for the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team and head coach Richard Pitino.
Ihnen, who’s considered a top 100 recruit in the 2019 class, highlights a group of seven newcomers on the Gophers’ revamped roster for the 2019-20 season. After a second-round NCAA tournament finish last March, the U must transition from record-setting forward Jordan Murphy and Coffey, who left after his junior year, wasn’t taken in the NBA draft and has settled on a two-way contract with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Ihnen, of Boeblingen, Germany, is among four freshmen, along with guards Tre’ Williams and Bryan “B.J.” Greenlee and center Sam Freeman. Three are transfers: forward Alihan Demir and guards Payton Willis and Marcus Carr.
“I feel like it’s almost we’re starting over a little bit. But that’s the fun part,” Pitino said.
The newcomers and returning players — led by sophomores Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur — embark on a nine-day, three-city trip to Italy. They will bond over pasta, pizza, a trip the Coliseum and three basketball games in Rome, Florence and Bologna from Saturday to Aug. 11.
Pitino said two things have struck him about this team’s budding identity: They’ve shown an ability to shoot three-pointers and put in overtime in the gym.
“I think offensively, totally different, can really shoot the ball,” he said. “This group is — they’re gym rats. They come early, you don’t tell them to come early. They come early. They stay late.”
The Gophers shot 31.7% from three-point range last season, which ranked 306th in the nation and 11th in the Big Ten. Their 603 attempts were the fewest in the conference.
“With Murphy, he’s such a unique player that you had to play more high-low basketball,” Pitino said. “When you can space the court with four guys (that can shoot) and then make it five, it opens up driving lanes, it spreads the defense out. … The personnel lends itself (this season) to that a little bit more.
“Now, we may not be as good of a rebounding team. We might not be as good of a defensive team. Those are things we will probably have to work on.”
Kalscheur, Willis, Carr and Ihnen are expected to be the top long-range shooters for the Gophers, with Ihnen impressing in how quickly he has picked up the 20 percent of the Gophers’ offense that has been installed.
“Really, really smart,” Pitino said of Ihnen. “Really talented. 6-8, can shoot the ball. When you watch him, you can see that’s a talented-looking player right there — or a talented prospect. Put on a little bit of weight (15 pounds of muscle) and I do think the sky is the limit for him.”
The Gophers and other NCAA programs are allowed one international trip each four years. The U went to Spain in 2015. This year, Pitino was considering a jaunt to Canada before forward Eric Curry and Carr talked him into something else.
Pitino said he has been doing some extra prep work for the trip. “I’ve starved myself for the last two weeks, solely to eat everything that is put in front of me,” Pitino joked. “It’s by far the best (food).”