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Gophers begin Big Ten basketball tournament with a short bench

Minnesota Gophers guard Amir Coffey (5) signals to a teammate during the first half against the Purdue Boilermakers on March 5, 2019, at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers men’s basketball team’s short bench has gotten shorter in the past two weeks.

Center Eric Curry’s season-ending foot injury stripped Minnesota of its best backup before its 73-69 victory over Purdue on March 5. Plus, coach Richard Pitino has decided to ride a hot Amir Coffey over playing point guard Isaiah Washington in the past three games.

En route to winning consecutive Big Ten player of the week awards, Coffey played 118 of the past 120 minutes. That workload could weigh on Coffey as the Gophers play in the Big Ten tournament in Chicago this week.

Seventh-seeded Minnesota (19-12, 9-11) plays No. 10 Penn State (14-17, 7-13) in a second-round game at 6 p.m. Thursday. If the Gophers win, they will have to go again 24 hours later against No. 2 Purdue (23-8, 16-4) in the quarterfinals. Minnesota’s bench of late has consisted primarily of center Mats Stockman and shooting guard Brock Stull.

Before the season, Pitino’s father, Rick, said on “The Sidelines with Evan Daniels” podcast: “If Isaiah Washington can mature out of the social media world and into the real basketball world of how to get it done, then they’ve got great promise. If not, he’s just got to find a different point guard and move in another direction.”

As the season has progressed, Richard Pitino has tried to minimize the importance of a point guard, often calling on Coffey and Dupree McBrayer to share the responsibilities of bringing the ball up the court.

Washington, meanwhile, hasn’t played at all in the past three games. He played in four of the previous five, sitting out one game with a tailbone injury. In those four games, he played a total of 20 minutes, with one assist, three turnovers, three rebounds and zero points.

Washington has maintained a positive attitude through it all. He was a fill-in for family members when Stockman, who is from Norway, was honored on senior night. After the Gophers lost 69-60 in the Big Ten regular-season finale at Maryland, he wrote in a tweet: “Bounce back time we are going to get the (next) one just watch #gophers.”

Pitino said he doesn’t have as much of a pregame plan for how he will play his bench as many observers might think, but he said practice habits will influence whom he trusts in games.

“It’s every little thing that you do to establish trust with the head coach,” Pitino said. “That’s when you are put in the game and you provide value and you provide trust in all those things, a coach is going to give you a little bit more leeway.”

Is Washington healthy and staying ready?

“Yeah, he’s healthy,” Pitino said. “Again, with Isaiah, a lot of it is Amir (Coffey). Amir is playing pretty good.”

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