By no means did Minnesota's offseason coaching change mean this program was in rebuilding mode. The Gophers are off to a hot start in the 2013-14 season, going 11-2 in non-conference play. Their only losses came against Syracuse and Arkansas in the Maui Invitational, games in which they proved they are ready to contend with the nation's best. The Gophers hung tight with the 'Cuse, now the second best team in the country, down only a basket with two minutes left. With the exception of Florida State, Minnesota didn't face any other stiff competition, but they always took care of business. Here's the biggest takeaways from Minnesota's non-conference play:
It All Starts with the Hollins Boys
Andre and Austin Hollins are Minnesota's team leaders and best players. Austin does it all for the Gophers. At the end of non-conference play, he was in the top 20 in the Big Ten in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. The skinny kid who once was seen as just a defensive specialist has developed into an all-around talent. Despite his quiet demeanor, Austin Hollins is the Gophers' senior leader, and they will look to him for big plays in crunch time.
Andre Hollins has adjusted into a slightly new role this season. With the addition of transfer Deandre Mathieu, Hollins is no longer Minnesota's main point guard. Andre has learned how to play from the wing and score in different ways. The junior guard is the Gophers' leading scorer with 16 points per game, and he is the go-to guy when the Gophers need a bucket. Minnesota will have both of the Hollins boys on the floor as much as possible this season.
Rich Pitino Brings in the Perfect System
Under Tubby Smith, Minnesota was known for its slow half court offense. It's out with the old and in with the new for the Gophers. Rich Pitino has this team running the floor at all times, and the system fits the personnel perfectly. Andre Hollins and Deandre Mathieu are two of the quickest guards in the conference. They look to push the pace as soon as they get the rock and often times go coast-to-coast for easy baskets in the lane. When the defense collapses, Hollins and Mathieu are able to kick out to Minnesota's array of three-point shooters in Malik Smith, Oto Osenieks, and Austin Hollins. The Gophers shot more threes in non-conference play than any other Big Ten team. The speed and quick hands of the Gopher guards has also allowed them to full court press at times. Pitino wants to press as much as possible and create havoc for opponents.
Even the Gopher big men are conforming to the fast-pace game. Center Elliott Eliason has always been a hustle player, but now he's learned to run the floor. Eliason is getting lots of layups thanks to his ability to fill the lanes on the break. Backup center Mo Walker, who once weighed over 300 pounds, has shed 60 pounds, and is putting in 15 minutes per game for the Gophers. The team as a whole is extremely well conditioned and prepared to run with the Big Ten's best.
Transfers Are Key Contributors
Rich Pitino didn't get much of a recruiting class from Tubby Smith, so he went out and reeled in three transfers. Joey King, Malik Smith, and Mathieu all came to Minnesota in the offseason, and each is contributing at least 19 minutes per game. Smith played under Pitino at Florida International and decided to move with the coach to Minnesota. Mathieu played junior college ball at Central Arizona College before Pitino picked him to run the his up-tempo system. And Joey King came to the Gophers after playing one year at Drake, where he was named to the Missouri Valley Conference all-freshman team.
King, Smith, and Mathieu have all assumed key roles for Minnesota. Mathieu is running the point, dishing out assists, and scoring efficiently. He's shooting 51% from the field and 57% from three. Smith is Minnesota's best spot-up shooter, and is always ready to pull from deep. Joey King gets the dirty work done. He sets screens and works to get other guys open on offense. Defensively he matches up on bigger guys and aids on help side in the post. All three transfers are vital to Minnesota's success this season.
With all the talent that was lost in the offseason, Rich Pitino has put together an astoundingly good team. The Gophers still aren't anywhere near the Big Ten elite though. They score a lot of points, and they give up a lot of points. If Minnesota stays healthy and steps up their defensive efforts, they could sneak into the top half of the conference and the NCAA tournament.