Minnesota has been picked to finish at around the 9th or 10th slot in the Big Ten this season. With traditional powers retaining their talent and other schools maintaining a high level of quality recruiting, Minnesota has been seemingly passed by while Pitino tried to get his footing on the recruiting trail and acclimating himself to his first big time conference gig. I guess what I'm trying to get at is expectations for this year's Golden Gopher squad are pretty low. The fan base just wants to see Pitino fulfill his promise of an exciting uptempo style and brush away the bad memories of the, at times, stagnant Tubby Smith era.
But what if I switch the narrative a little bit here. Imagine a team that runs a trapping full court press and doesn't necessarily assign guards specific positions. Imagine a team that wants to impose its preferred tempo on its opponents, space the floor, shoot threes, and create turnovers. Now imagine that team has several above 35% 3-point shooters, two very experienced, very talented all-conference type guards, and a coach dying to prove he is much more than a name. Wouldn't you say that team could be successful, even if it has to maneuver it's way through the toughest conference in the country?
Though hyperbolic I might be, there is so much unknown about the composition and ability about this Gopher squad that predictions can seem like a fool's errand at this time in the season. There are a lot of new faces, guys who have barely played being thrust into major roles, and a few guys who have competed quite successfully at the highest level college basketball has to offer. The question is whether a coach with only one year of head coaching experience in the Sun Belt conference can compete against the likes of Matta, Izzo, and Ryan.
Let's just try to sort out the known and the unknown and go from there.
Andre Hollins - A 6' 2" 195 lbs junior, Hollins decided to stay at Minnesota after Tubby Smith was fired. That decision could pay off in spades for Andre. In Pitino's system, Andre won't be shackled with the responsibilities of running the offense as the team's designated point guard because Coach's style of play dictates a more fluid in-game rotation of the three guard spots. One play isn't necessarily designated as the 1 for the entire set. The roles are more fluid. This will allow Andre to utilize his 3-point efficiency off the ball more often than not. Furthermore, we could see a decent decrease in turnovers from Hollins because the team won't be relying on him to play the point position for 30 minutes a game. With his turnover rate dropping nearly 6% between his freshman and sophomore season, it's safe to say that another improvement in this statistical category isn't out of the question. If Hollins can continue the improvement he showed in his 3-point percentage (up to 41.8% from 37.9%) he could be an insanely dangerous offensive weapon in this shooting-happy extravaganza Pitino likes to deploy.
Austin Hollins - Let me start by saying I am probably a little biased, because Austin Hollins is currently my favorite Gopher player, but he might be the most underrated player in the conference. Last season, he ranked 6th in the conference in offensive rating, a metric which estimates the number of points produced per 100 possessions, and 4th in steal percentage. Now imagine a 6' 4" guard with a massive wingspan and great athleticism being an integral part in a full court trapping defense and playing around 30 minutes a game who finished 3rd in steals per game. His defensive numbers are going to be spectacularly gaudy if Pitino gives him 30 minutes a night. And that's just the defense. For someone who doesn't have the ball in his hands all that much, Hollins has an innate ability to find the open man and make the extra pass that leads to an easy bucket. If he can bring the shooting percentages up to above average levels, Austin could be an all-conference level player.
Deandre Mathieu - Mathieu is a 5' 9" 165 lbs junior college transfer (played one year at Morehead State as a freshman) who Pitino hand-picked to bridge the gap between the old regimes recruits and his own. He has gotten the lion's share of minutes at point guard in the Gophers' first two exhibition games so he is my educated guess to be the third starting guard come Friday night against Lehigh. Lightening quick, with an uncanny ability to get to the rim despite his size, Deandre will be an interesting piece come Big Ten conference play, considering his slight frame and inexperience against this kind of talent. It will be interesting to see if his quickness and ball-handling will successfully transfer to a higher level of competition. But Mathieu will bring a tenacity on the defensive side of the ball necessary to successfully implement the trapping defense Pitino loves to use. He won't be as much of a shooting threat, with only a 26% success rate from downtown last year at Central Arizona Community College but if he can fill his role as drive and kick player, that will be just fine for Coach P.
Oto Osenieks - This is where it starts to get a little, shall we say, interesting. Osenieks was hailed as a sharpshooter who redshirted and got 11 and 9 minutes his freshman and sophomore years, respectively. Sadly, the sharpshooting was left in his home country of Latvia, as Oto has gone on to shoot a combined 19.4% from 3 and 35.1% from the field in his first two seasons as a Gopher. At 6' 8" and 220 lbs, Oto certainly isn't an imposing figure at the power forward position but it appears Coach Pitino wants to run a little small and bank on Oseniek's yet to be tapped athleticism. While he has shown very small spurts of serviceable play, he often looked over matched in the Big Ten last year. However, maybe with a little encouragement and increased playing time, Oto can prove the naysayers wrong and show why he was once a respected international recruit. It will be important for him to be aggressive, gain confidence by attacking the basket on the offensive boards, and knocking down a reliable 15 footer. To be honest, a lot of question marks still persist.
Eliott Eliason - Eliason is 6' 11", 240 lbs, and a reasonably reliable defender. His height allows him to make up for somethings his otherwise sluggish feet would expose. His role in the new style of play should be interesting to keep tabs on as he isn't the fleetest of foot and has shown signs of quick fatigue against more uptempo opponents. All this being said, Elliott had shown signs of improvement last year. He more or less held his own against Cody Zeller in two regular season match ups. He appeared to be developing a few post moves. And he always gets points for his hustle and grit. But for now, I just see Eliason as the man who doesn't fit into his new coach's system at all. Fifteen hard working, quality minutes a game may be the ceiling for EE.
Projected Significant Bench Players
The bench is guard-heavy which will be useful if the starters get into foul trouble. Factoring the new offense friendly rules the NCAA instituted and Pitino's high pressure style of play, the guards will be a key off the bench. Malik Smith, a 5th year senior, followed Pitino from FIU. He has a penchant for shooting threes and isn't shy about it. He should be valuable considering the sheer quantity of threes Pitino encourages his offense to take and he knows the defense better than another from last year's Minnesota squad because of his familiarity with the coach. He will be a very valuable asset.
Wally Ellenson is a spectacular jumper who was touted as a better shooter than what he showed in his first season at Minnesota last year. If the Gophers can get him into the open court on the fast break and utilize his athleticism on the defensive end, he could prove to be a serviceable player.
Daquein McNeil is Pitino's only true incoming freshman. He was a late recruit but appears to be a decent fit for the kind of style Pitino wants to impose on his Big Ten opponents. Long, quick, and not afraid to shoot, I doubt McNeil will log over 10 minutes a game this year, unless he shows something spectacular or those ahead of him are injured. He is more important for the team's long term success and should be focused on improving throughout the season and learning the ins and outs of Coach's preferred pedal to the medal type of play.
When Joey King was announces as immediately eligible to play, Pitino breathed a huge sigh of relief. Without King, depth at the 4 position would have been extremely thin. As it stands now, King will play a majority of minutes at the "flex 4" spot, attempting to stretch defenses with his decent range from three point land. It has been said in the preseason that King needs to be more aggressive and if the Gophers are going to have any amount of success in Big Ten play, Joey will need to not only knock down 3's but crash the boards without abandon to compensate for the loss of Trevor Mbakwe. Good luck with that Joey boy.
Last of the significant contributors is Charles Buggs, who redshirted last year and has garnered some comparisons to Rodney Williams. If this means he can't hit a 10-foot jumper, then Gopher fans are in for four more years of headaches that Rodney brought with aplomb. If this means he can be an athletic freak who jumps out of the gym for fantastic dunks and crashes the boards successfully, then Gopher fans will enjoy making coy headlines with Charles' last name. He may start off slowly, easing into playing time but look for Buggs to get better as the season goes on and use his athleticism to create turnovers within Pitino's defensive scheme.
Due to the depth of the conference and the overall sophomoric nature of the Gophers, both on the sidelines and on the court, it would be difficult to project them as any more than a tenacious, but ultimately flawed conference bottom feeder. However, if the Hollins' can adapt to the new system quick enough and the team can use the mostly pathetically weak non-conference schedule to gain some confidence, things could be looking up when the Wolverines come calling to the Barn at the end of December.
I expect Minnesota to be a thorn in the side of most teams, especially if they are able to dictate their preferred pace of play. I expect them to take an exorbitant amount of three-point shots and expect them to lead the league in turnovers, both offensively and defensively. With my maroon colored glasses on, I'll say they finish 7th in the conference, battle in the conference tournament, and fall just short of a NCAA tournament bid. The more likely scenario though is a 9th place finish with no notable wins and a waste of Austin Hollins' senior season. At least the brand of basketball will be exciting!