The preseason talk about Minnesota basketball has centered a great deal on what head coach Richard Pitino has returning in the backcourt. With newly-minted team captains Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu back in the fold for their senior seasons, the Gophers can lay claim to one of the most experienced, dynamic guard tandems in the Big Ten. 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.
The backcourt is not the only place where Minnesota has veteran leadership, though. A pair of redshirt seniors will also play major minutes in the post for Pitino, and will look to establish a physical presence in the paint. There are high expectations for the big men in maroon and gold as the team hopes to use last season's NIT title as a springboard to bigger things.
Let's continue our preview of the Gophers by taking a look at the big guys in the middle.
Minnesota brings back two bigs that are capable of starting in Elliott Eliason and Maurice Walker. Only one man will start in the middle, but even Pitino doesn't know who that will be as of yet.
As the second year head coach said at Big Ten Media Day, "We've got two veteran bigs with Mo and Elliott, whoever starts, I don't know, but we need to go inside to them early because they're very capable."
Elliott Eliason - 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, but basically doubled his production from his sophomore year. Eliason was fifth in the Big Ten with 6.9 rebounds per game and third with 1.9 blocks per contest.
Eliason has worked hard the past two summers to remake his body, get stronger, and ward off the injuries that plagued him early in his career in Minneapolis. With better conditioning, the fifth-year senior has had the opportunity to work more on his offensive game.
"We're doing a lot more skill work this summer," Eliason said. "On the court, I'm doing a lot of shooting jump shots and free throws, and working on some back-to-the-basket moves. I've been working to just kind of be strong with the ball so I'll be able to make a better back-to-the-basket move."
If Eliason can become a reliable offensive option for the Gophers, the inside-out possibilities will make every trip to the Barn even more difficult for opposing teams.
Maurice Walker - As hard as Eliason has worked to improve his strength and conditioning, Walker has come even further. When Pitino was hired to bring his up-tempo style to Minnesota, the 6'10" Canadian weighed more than 300 pounds, which did not make him a good fit. Walker trimmed nearly sixty pounds from his frame last summer, and is currently listed at 255.
"I just told him he wasn't going to play unless he lost a lot of weight, and that was really it," Pitino said last July. "He's done the rest."
A six-game suspension for a violation of university policy was the next obstacle Walker had to overcome. Once he did, he had his best collegiate season, averaging career highs with 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds in just under 20 minutes a game. With another offseason of conditioning under his belt, Walker should be in line for more minutes, and the Gophers expect his production in the paint to increase in kind.
"You look at Mo as he was getting going towards the end of the year, was really scoring at a very good rate in the low post," Pitino said at Media Day. "We've got to establish that."
With Joey King the likely starter at power forward and one of Eliason or Walker poised to come off the bench, the competition for minutes among Minnesota's frontcourt reserves will be crowded. We've discussed freshman power forward Josh Martin and his game, but another newcomer figures to see some time on the court as well.
Bakary Konate - Konate is one of the more intriguing newcomers in the Big Ten. At 6'11", the Mali native is extremely athletic and is a tremendously hard worker. Konate has impressive perimeter shooting skills for a player his size, and is a big-time shot blocker.
"Bakary has tremendous potential, the sky is the limit for him," Pitino said when Konate committed last spring. "He's a great athlete and shot blocker, which is vital in our system.
Weighing in somewhere between 220-230 pounds, the product of Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas must get stronger to withstand the rigors of the conference and maintain position on the block. Still, the raw talent is evident, and Konate should see minutes as a freshman.
Charles Buggs - Buggs may have the most potential for improvement from a physical standpoint on the entire Gopher roster, but there are a number of questions about his fit within the program. When Pitino replaced Tubby Smith as head coach, there were rumors that Buggs may transfer. After playing a grand total of 107 minutes last season, those questions still remain.
The 6'9" redshirt sophomore certainly has athletic ability, and flashed his offensive game in a conference matchup against Iowa last February at Williams Arena. Buggs scored 13 points off the bench, including going 3-for-3 from three-point range, to help spark a 95-89 victory over the Hawkeyes. Prior to that game, the Texas native had played a grand total of 21 minutes. Unfortunately, he scored just nine points in nine games the rest of the way.
"He's the type of kid that showed flashes," assitant coach DanMcHale said. "If the light bulb goes on, he's an extremely talented player."
It remains to be seen if Buggs, who underwent knee surgery in April, will ever get that chance at Minnesota.
Overall Grade: B
Bringing back two starting-caliber centers in Walker and Eliason and throwing in a raw talent like Konate gives Minnesota a strong frontcourt rotation. Still, Pitino needs production to match the potential, not only in terms of scoring, but on the defensive side of the ball and on the boards. This unit is among the most experienced frontlines in the Big Ten, and the Gophers will need them to play that way if the team hopes to reach that other postseason tournament come March.