Due to a new coach, a new scheme, and several new players, there are a lot of questions to be raised about Minnesota's backcourt heading into the season. In Rich Pitino's hell on wheels style of play, Minnesota could, at times, install a four guard lineup reminiscent of the 2011-2012 Missouri Tigers. While the Golden Gophers aren't nearly as talented or as deep as that team, the frontcourt's development and composition is sure to create both intrigue and turnovers throughout the upcoming season. How many guards will start? Who will back up at point guard? How many threes can one team take in a 40 minute Big Ten game? Really, the only person who can currently answer these questions is the man who holds the keys to the Ferrari, so it may be best to sit back and watch as Pitino begins his first year at Minnesota.
Backcourt Starters (AKA The Hollins')
The only truly known starters in the backcourt are the members of the prestigious Hollins and Hollins backcourt law firm. Andre Hollins, who is entering his junior season at Minnesota, was selected to the Preseason B1G Media Third Team. Thrust into the point guard role due to lack of depth at the position last year, Andre performed admirably while trying to maintain the delicate balance between scorer and distributor. There were times last year in an often stagnant offense where Andre's shot making abilities literally carried the Gophers for long periods of time, often leading in Minnesota defeats. On a rare occasion, it led to performances like this.
Andre Hollins Scoring 41 against Memphis (via Bryan Bender)
Hollins can fill the bucket up in a hurry, is showing improvement on the defensive end of the floor and should provide an experienced ball handler in Pitino's fast paced offense. While he step back jumpers are at times a thing of beauty, if Hollins continues to develop as a finisher around the rim where the B1G trees grow, he could see that Third Team selection morph into a Second Team selection. Look for no further proof than the fact that Andre was 6th in the league in offensive win shares last season. The only player who finished ahead of him who returns to league play is Glenn Robinson III.
The other half of the Hollins Law Firm, senior Austin Hollins, is quite possibly the most underrated player in the conference. A stat stuffer, capable of putting up 8 of just about any offensive or defensive statistic in a single game, Austin has already been praised by Pitino as the "consummate professional." His long arms and excellent athletic abilities should play quite well in the pressing defense and I wouldn't be surprised to see him ahead of the more highly touted Aaron Craft in steals in the conference by the end of the season. The Hollins' combined to make one of the conference's best 1-2 guard punches. Besides Michigan State and Ohio State, there may not be a more experienced and better pairing in the B1G. The question is can these two carry the load and raise their level of play to allow Minnesota to exceed the meager expectations of the season?
After the two Hollins', things get a bit murky. It is safe to assume that Pitino, due to style and players available at his disposal, will generally attack with a three (if not four) guard lineup that isn't terribly big by any stretch of the imagination. Since Pitino has emphasized the flexibility of the guards within his system, it generally won't matter who is labeled the "1", the "2", or the "3" (with the possible exception of Deandre Mathieu). So let's just break down the rest of the guards in the backup category.
Backcourt Backups (AKA The Non-Hollins')
Deandre Mathieu - Mathieu is a JUCO transfer coaxed to come to Minnesota to play in Pitino's fast-paced fun house. Though diminutive in stature (only 5'9", 165 lbs.) he has an uncanny ability to get to the hoop using explosive quickness and a good first step. While he hasn't faced B1G level competition, he may still prove to be an excellent addition on the defensive end of the ball, as his quickness and good hands have shown the ability to force turnovers. Look for him to possibly become the starting point guard, as Pitino has favored him in the Gophers' two exhibition games.
Maverick Ahanmisi - Ahanmisi is entering his senior year as a Golden Gopher. While generally playing a bench role for the majority of his career, Mav has greatly improved his 3 point percentage (from 29.4 % as a sophomore to 38.8% as a junior). While his defense will probably always leave something to be desired, if he continues to shot at a high clip from downtown, Pitino is sure to find playing time for Ahanmisi at the point guard position.
Malik Smith - Smith is a 5th year senior who transferred with Pitino from Florida International. As a player used to Rich's system/style of play, Malik could be a key cog behind the scenes as well as on the court. Not afraid to shoot from distance, Smith attempted 265 3-pointers during the 2012-2013 season, converting at a rate of 36.2%. He understands Pitino's system and can fill it up from range. I expect him to get a decent amount of playing time throughout the season, whether it is off the bench or as a starter.
Wally Ellenson - Ellenson, entering his sophomore season, appears to be a bit of a wild card. While his athleticism is undeniable, a shooter in his first year on campus he was not. His length will play well in the full court pressure scheme but does he have the overall quickness to help and recover successfully out of the trap? Does he have the ability to knock down open shots form distance? These are the questions about Ellenson that will most likely dictate his playing time.
Daquein McNeil - McNeil is a 6' 3" true freshman from Maryland who was snatched up by Pitino in the spring to fit his system. Daquein appears to have a decent shot and good length but will probably register the least amount of minutes out of the non-walk-on guards. However, his development could portend how successful Pitino's system can be in the B1G so keep your eyes on this youngster.
Kendal Shell - Shell is walk-on out of St. Louis, Missouri entering into his junior season. He has generally only gotten playing time when things get out of hand but might prove a bit more valuable this year in practice working on the press defense that requires fresh bodies and a multitude of guards. While he might not play a significant minute this season, it's nice to hear Coach says this about you, "...but Kendall's in probably the best shape of anyone on the team. He comes to work every day."
Who will play? And will the shots fall? It will be interesting to see who ends up with lions' share of minutes outside of the two Hollins'. But, if Andre and Austin can find themselves shooting in the 43% range from deep, watch out. If either Ahanmisi or Mathieu steps in at the point, and Andre shifts back down to his natural position of shooting guards, things could get really interesting from downtown. The Gophers could fill it up fast in a high-octane style of play.
Andre and Austin Hollins form one of the best 1-2 punches in the B1G. However, the rest of the backcourt appears to be a bit of an unknown variable right now. These two guys alone could be good enough to outperform the meager expectations put on this team but it may take a few conference games to understand how well Pitino's style will transfer to conference he has never been associated with and with players he, for the most part, didn't recruit. As cliché as it sounds, only time will tell when it comes to the Golden Gopher backcourt.