As "bubble watch" time arrives in the world of college basketball and conference teams begin to see each other a second time, coaches often have to find new ways for their respective teams to be effective on the court. At times, this can manifest itself in the form of unlikely contributors. For the Minnesota Golden Gophers just to get on the bubble this year, they've received these unlikely contributions in all shapes and sizes.
From Deandre Mathieu being a 5' 9" jitterbug of a point guard, driving to the basket among the trees and distributing to teammates, to Maurice Walker becoming a formidable inside presence amongst the giants of the B1G, to even fifth year senior/gunslinger Malik Smith catching fire in the occasional game, the Gophers have had all hands on deck. But as the home stretch of the season begins, the Gophers ace in the hole may have to come from a truly unexpected source.
Daquein McNeil, a 6' 3" 195 pound guard from Baltimore, is the only scholarship freshman from Coach Richard Pitino's first recruiting class. He's averaged only 9.7 minutes a game and didn't even see the court for Minnesota's first conference contest at home against Michigan. However, there are several possible reasons to considering why McNeil could prove to be a valuable piece for the Golden Gophers during the final seven conference contests.
1. Rest for an injured cornerstone - Andre Hollins recently missed the equivalence of three games due to a severely sprained ankle. He still is quoted as saying he isn't 100%. If McNeil can be a viable option off the bench, Hollins may have his work load increased more gradually, allowing the proper and necessary healing for his ankle. Hollins relies heavily on his ability to cut off the ankle and stop for a quick jumpers and him being back full-strength is an absolute must for Minnesota.
2. Holster the guns! - Malik Smith is definitely a gunslinger. And at times an incredibly accurate one. But he has hit a bit of a rut of late, going 2-17 in the Gophers' last three games. While it's generally accepted that you must allow shooters to "shoot" their way out of a slump, Daquein could provide relief if Smith doesn't appear to have it on a given day.
3. An unexpected shooter? - While Smith and Austin Hollins have struggled to find their form from the outside in conference play and McNeil has only attempted eight (and made two) three-pointers all season, he definitely has the ability to make shots from beyond the arc. If he can pick his spots to launch from deep, he may provide the necessary complement to a Deandre Mathieu kick-out or two in key spots.
4. Another iron in the fire - Another reason to consider McNeil valuable to the cause would be that with increased minutes from the Baltimore native, it would allow the Gophers to continue their full court pressure by keeping the rest of their guards fresh throughout the game. If McNeil takes a few minutes here and there and plays quality defense, he can provide the Hollins', Mathieu, and Smith with enough rest to allow them to employ more full-court pressure without being fatigued and without Pitino having to worry about being down double digits by the time they get back into the game.
5. Limits mistakes - While he has only played 155 minutes out of a possible 980 (15.8%), he has only 5 turnovers, or 1 for every 31 minutes played. Even in spot duty, that is an excellent ratio. If he can become more assertive while being smart with the ball, his minutes will continue to increase in efficiency and effectiveness, giving the Gophers multiple viable options off the bench.
Minnesota's success in the final seven games of the conference season will not be directly tied to Daquein McNeil. After all, he is the ninth player off the bench in what Pitino has molded into a 9-man rotation. But if he can begin to get more out of the minutes he plays, it will go a long way towards giving the Gophers a chance against the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State away from home, and the Iowa Hawkeyes at the Barn. And for the Gophers to squeeze into the NCAA Tournament, they may just need a little extra from just one more unexpected source to push them over the top.