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Minnesota's X-Factor: DeAndre Mathieu

After an NIT title, Mathieu and the Gophers have their sights set higher

Jeff Zelevansky

When Minnesota tips off its season in Puerto Rico against top-tier Louisville, there will be more to watch than merely a father-son battle. Yes, head coach Richard Pitino will be squaring off against his legendary father, but for the Gophers, the meeting with the Cardinals will serve as an early barometer for just how much improved the program has become in a short time. Fresh off winning the NIT championship last spring, Minnesota is looking to make some noise in a fairly wide open Big Ten.

After a 25-13 showing last season, including an impressive 18-3 at home, the Gophers are returning several key pieces in 2014-15, and have an opportunity to contend in the conference. How high this team can climb will depend in large part on its smallest player, point guard DeAndre Mathieu.

Mathieu was a newcomer to the Big Ten last year, playing for his third team in three collegiate seasons after stops at Morehead State and Central Arizona College. The Knoxville native finally found a home in Minneapolis, stabilizing the Gophers' backcourt and showing glimpses of being a special floor general.

At 5'9", Mathieu is one of the more diminutive players in the conference, but proved he could hang with the physical nature of the Big Ten. As a junior, he was third on the team in scoring at 12 points per game, shooting an impressive 51 percent from the floor, and placed fourth in the conference in assists with 4.2 per contest. Mathieu also showed an ability to knock down outside shots, hitting 49 percent of his three-point tries, though he attempted only 45 of them. Mathieu started every game and logged the third-most minutes on the team.

As a senior, Mathieu will be expected to build off his honorable mention All-Big Ten performance from a season ago. Along with backcourt mate Andre Hollins, Pitino will be looking to his point guard to help make up for the departure of last year's second leading scorer, Austin Hollins. Mathieu has elite quickness, which he will need to use aggressively to get into the lane, attack opposing defenses, set up teammates for easy scoring opportunities, and lead the Gophers' perimeter defense.

As Mathieu showed last season, he can run an offense, using a variety of shots to score and setting up teammates. If he can build upon that success, the former first team JUCO All-American could put himself into the conversation amongst the Big Ten's best point guards, and the Gophers could be headed to that other postseason tournament come March.