Minnesota is primed to prove that it can contend in the Big Ten in head coach Richard Pitino's second year at the helm. After winning the NIT last season, the Gophers have a solid veteran foundation. If they can fill the hole left by last season's second-leading scorer, Austin Hollins, and see some young players develop, they could find themselves in that other postseason tournament come March. Let's look at why optimism is in the air in Minneapolis.
Five reasons to be optimistic about the Gophers in 2014-15
#1 - A winning pedigree
While Minnesota is not the first program that jumps to people's minds when thinking about a winning culture, the veterans on the roster have played in big games. In addition to the run to the NIT title last season, the Gophers were runners-up to Stanford in the NIT in 2012 and won a game in the NCAA tournament in 2013 before bowing out to Florida. This is not a team that should shrink under the bright lights. Having veterans that have been there before is a major advantage in college basketball, and should serve Minnesota well once the rugged Big Ten schedule gets started.
#2 - A year under the belt
It can sometimes be overlooked because of his name, but head coach Richard Pitino only had one year of experience as at the helm of a program prior to taking over the Gophers. Though he served on the staffs of heavyweight schools like Louisville and Florida, having a year's experience heading up a team in the Big Ten should help Pitino to improve upon his in-game management. Returning a solid core of players to year two in the system should make for smoother, more efficient execution and an increased level of trust, both of which will allow Minnesota to just go out and play.
#3 - Dynamic backcourt duo
Minnesota should be among the most dynamic backcourts in the Big Ten this season with seniors Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu returning. Hollins led the Gophers in scoring a season ago, and has the skills to become a first team All-Big Ten type of player. Earning honorable mention All-Big Ten as a junior, the Memphis native put up 13.6 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, while leading the team with an 84 percent free throw shooting percentage.
Complementing Hollins and running the show on offense is Mathieu, who we at BT Powerhouse identified as the Gophers' X-factor this season. The point guard from Knoxville was third on the team in scoring in his first season in Minneapolis at 12 points per game, and finished fourth in the conference in assists per contest at 4.2. In year two under Pitino, Hollins and Mathieu will be given a lot of space to drive the Gophers' offensive production and push the tempo.
#4 - Vets in the post
The backcourt is not the only place where Minnesota has veteran leadership. A pair of redshirt seniors will also play major minutes in the post for Pitino, and help to establish a physical presence in the paint. Center Elliott Eliason has shown flashes of his potential to be a bona fide low post threat, but has yet to establish any kind of consistency. The 6'11" Nebraska native averaged just five points a game a season ago, though he did lead the team with a 6.6 rebounding average.
Also in the fold is Maurice Walker, who made big strides last season, trimming down to 250 pounds and averaging career highs in scoring (7.8 ppg) and rebounding (4.5 rbg). Both bigs will be expected to increase their production in their final season for the Gophers, as well as help tutor 6'11" freshman Bakary Konate.
#5 - Home Cooking
Williams Arena, more widely known as The Barn, has been very good to Minnesota lately. The Gophers have compiled a 33-5 home record the past two seasons, including an 18-3 mark last year. With the excitement and momentum created by last spring's NIT championship, Pitino's squad will have plenty of support in the eighteen home tilts scheduled in 2014-15. The Gophers' coach gave exciting news to supporters of the maroon and gold on his Twitter account six weeks ago:
According to our ticket office season ticket renewal rate is highest renewal rate ever. Thank you Gopher fans. Can't wait for this season!— Richard Pitino (@MNCoachPitino) August 28, 2014
The Barn offers a great home-court advantage, and an increase in butts in seats will only serve to make life that much more difficult for opposing players and coaches. With home matchups against Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Iowa highlighting Minnesota's Big Ten schedule, the Gophers will need all the noise they can get.
Minnesota appears to be a program on the ascent under Pitino. With a veteran club this season, the Gophers have the potential to contend in the Big Ten. As they showed in winning the NIT last spring, this is a veteran team that will not back down against anyone. Supporters of the program have been re-energized, and with markedly improved recruiting classes on campus and in the pipeline, the maroon and gold could be a factor in the conference for years to come.