Losing Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams to graduation would decimate any Big Ten team's front line, especially considering Mbakwe led the Big Ten in just about every rebounding category known to man last year. While Mbakwe would have been a perfect fit for Pitino's uptempo style of play, which emphasizes athleticism as much as any other trait in a big man, the responsibility to fill the void will fall to an interesting cast of characters this upcoming season. Let's get right to it, shall we?
Based off the first two exhibition games, the starters will probably be redshirt juniors Elliot Eliason at the center spot and Oto Osenieks at the power forward spot. I believe it would be fair to say that this is a spectacular downgrade in talent and athleticism from a year ago. However, both Eliason and Osenieks have seen good chucks of playing time in the past, more so in Eliason's case, and certainly don't lack experience. Elliott has always been a reliable defender down on the blocks, as long as the opposing team's center isn't spectacularly athletic. And even in the case of Cody Zeller, there were spurts of play where Eliason held his own, especially in the Gopher's upset of Indiana last February. His 6' 11" frame is certainly an asset on the defensive end, though he does tend to garner fouls at an alarming rate when given extended minutes. Because Pitino's style of play does not emphasize post play, Eliason's average post offense won't be as much of a weakness as it would have been in the previous coaching regime. It will be interesting to see how Elliott performs with starters' minutes and in a system that requires a high level of endurance, which, at times, appeared to be a weakness in the big man's game last year.
Oto Osenieks was hailed out of high school as a combination of a deadly shooter and an above average athlete. Thus far through his Golden Gopher career, he has proved to be neither. He shot an atrocious 29.7% from the floor and an impossibly terrible 7.7% from 3-point land. Coach Pitino has insisted that Oto has looked good shooting the ball throughout the off season, but color me skeptical. Furthermore, a 6' 8" 220 lbs power forward isn't going to strike fear into opposing teams any time soon in the Big Ten. If Pitino has the confidence in Osenieks to place him in the starting lineup, however, he must have made the most positive impression of all the options available to the coach at the time. If Oto can bring his 3-point shooting up to more pedestrian levels and play hard-nosed defense, he may still prove to be a valuable piece in Pitino's rotation.
Three players round out the Gopher forwards and centers, emphasizing a lack of depth in the front court and the propensity of Pitino to favor three and four guard lineups. Rebounding has definitely been a concern in the offseason and during preseason practice and the team's first two exhibition games. These three players will have to work hard to attack the boards and pick their spots offensively if Minnesota is to have a chance to keep games competitive against the upper echelon of Big Ten this year.
Maurice Walker - Another redshirt junior, Mo Walker underwent an unbelievable transformation this off season. It was definitely necessary if he was going to have any chance of keeping up with the tempo the Gophers will be running at on the defensive end of the floor. Walker has impressed in the first two exhibition games, registering a double-double in the second effort against Concordia-St. Paul. He has shown spurts of good court awareness and deft passing, but has still lacked the aggression necessary for a big man to succeed in the Big Ten. However, if Walker's game continues to develop and he shows he is capable of pulling his weight on the defensive end, he may see increased playing time throughout the season.
Joey King - A sophomore transfer from Drake, who was recently ruled immediately eligible to play for Minnesota this year, King appears to be another big man who likes to shot the 3-ball. At 6' 9" 225, King won't be throwing his weight around down low against the likes of Payne and Hammons anytime soon, but he does fit in well to Pitino's vision of a high-volume shooting offense. A member of the Missouri Valley Conference All-Freshman team, King should provide respectable depth at the 4 position, along with some shooting prowess for someone of his size. While it has been noted from Coach Pitino that King has played tentatively in practices and exhibition games, it may just be the expected time of adjustment to a new team and conference. King is obviously a talented player and his services were sought after by several respectable programs. I foresee him playing a larger role in the team's success as the season goes on, especially come conference season time, when the fouls may begin to pile up between Eliason and Walker.
Charles Buggs - A 6' 9" 210 lbs redshirt freshman, it is generally agreed upon that Buggs' athleticism is off the charts. However, the key will be to harnessing this athleticism into competent defense and respectable mid-range shooting. Besides Walker and Eliason, Buggs is the least likely player to be dialing it up from long range. However, he is probably the second best athlete on the team to Austin Hollins. Considering his length and vertical abilities, he may yet prove to be an essential part to Pitino's trap, especially among the second team. The redshirt season did allow Buggs to put on some weight, which will come in handy during the Big Ten season. For now, Charles will be counted on to contribute some tenacious minutes off the bench, displaying his athletic ability and forcing turnovers. If he can begin to polish a mid range shot and defensive awareness, his value may continue to rise throughout his first season.
Can this group keep the rebounding margin respectable in Big Ten play?
Worries about rebounding started immediately for the Golden Gophers when they were out rebounded by some team called Cardinal Stritch in their first exhibition game of the season. In order for the team to have any amount of success in Big Ten play, they will need to crash the boards with tenacity and overachieve as a unit. It is unlikely that any one player will be able to make up for the losses of Mbakwe, Williams, and even Andre Ingram, but if an all-hands-on-deck approach can be put forth towards rebounding, Minnesota may be able to close the rebounding margin just enough to stay competitive.
The front court is definitely the weakness, as far as ability and experience, in Pitino's first year at the helm. But it is also largely an unknown. We know what Eliason provides as a starter. After that, it's a lot of guys who have little or no experience playing a large quantity of minutes in the Big Ten. If the Gophers have any hopes of sniffing an NCAA Tournament bid, the front court will have to overachieve and contribute, not just respectable rebounding numbers, but also sufficient pressure and rotation on the defensive end in Pitino's full court trapping system.