Richard Pitino is entering his second year at the helm of the Minnesota basketball program with a lot of experience returning in the backcourt and in the pivot. Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu, who were just named team captains, will provide one of the more experienced, dynamic guard tandems in the Big Ten, and Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker return as senior big men.
The biggest question for the Gophers as the season approaches is who will step in to the fill the role of Austin Hollins on the wing. Hollins, a three-year starter, was second on the team a year ago in both scoring (12.4 ppg) and rebounding (5 rpg), and led the team in steals. Minnesota's remaining wing players are largely unproven, and constitute the biggest question Pitino will have to answer.
Let's continue our preview of the Gophers by taking a look at who may be able to step up for the maroon and gold.
Minnesota's roster is guard-heavy, and that suits Pitino's up-tempo style. Having the speedy Mathieu and last season's leading scorer Hollins returning should guarantee that the Gophers will try to get up and down the court. They need a wing who can do the same, and by all accounts, a newcomer may be the right fit.
Carlos Morris - Minnesota got a boost from a junior college transfer a season ago in Mathieu, and Pitino expects a similar impact from Morris, who averaged 14.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game last year for Chipola College.
"We need him to have a Deandre Mathieu-type impact," Pitino said.
At 6'5", the Apalachicola, Florida native is perhaps the only true small forward on Minnesota's roster. Lean and lanky, coaches and trainers have had him on a mass-building diet and workout routine since he arrived on campus in an attempt to build up his 175-pound frame for the rigors and physicality in the Big Ten.
Morris is known for his strong ball-handling skills, unselfish play, and ability to attack the rim, especially in transition. He needs to find more consistency in his perimeter shot, though, if he is to help fill the void left by Hollins.
"He's a playmaker, he looks to find guys," assistant coach Dan McHale said. "He's got big shoes to fill with Austin, and he's a very different player than Austin, but he compliments the way we play."
Joey King - King took over the starting power forward spot for the Gophers late last season, and helped spark the team's run to the NIT title. A transfer from Drake, King displayed the ability to knock down clutch shots, scoring in double-figures in four of Minnesota's final six games, but it was his grittiness that earned him playing time.
"He would dive off the stage of the Barn if you asked him to," McHale said. "Joey King is our hard hat guy."
The 6'9" Eagan, Minnesota native finished the year averaging just over seven points and just under three rebounds per game, shooting 36 percent from three-point range and 79 percent on free throws. The shooting numbers are what sets King apart from the other big men on the team, and should lead to plenty of opportunities to stretch the defense on the wing.
This is where things get tricky. Because of the bevy of guards and bigs at Pitino's disposal, Minnesota is likely to run out small lineups or rely on stretch fours to create space on the wing. A freshman power forward may possess the physical tools to do so if he continues to develop his game.
Josh Martin - Martin is another power forward who the Gophers believe has the ability to play on the wing. A three-star recruit out of Washington state, Martin will compete with King and redshirt sophomore Charles Buggs for minutes at the four. At 6'8" and with plus athleticism, Pitino and his coaching staff believe he can be more than just a in-the-paint player.
"Coach McHale has been talking to me about developing into more of a slasher," Martin said. "I feel like I can be multifaceted on the court and provide a lot of different things."
Martin averaged 27 points and 14 rebounds per contest as a high school senior, and developed a reputation for being a must-see dunker. He has strength and tenacity on the boards, but must improve his handle and perimeter shot to become an inside-outside threat. Reports from preseason practices indicate that his shooting range is already showing definite signs of improvement.
Overall Grade: C-
The lack of depth at the wing is a concern for a team that wants to push tempo as the Gophers do. While Hollins and Mathieu are equipped to run and gun, there is no proven commodity on the wing to run with them. Morris may well be the answer, but must prove that he can make shots and stand up to the physical play of the Big Ten. If he is able to do so, and if King and Martin can stretch the defense from the power forward spot, this grade has a lot of room to improve throughout the season.