In what appeared to be a transitional year for the Minnesota basketball program, first-year head coach Richard Pitino led the Gophers to a somewhat surprising 25-13 record and an NIT championship. With a fast-paced style and a veteran nucleus returning, the team will be looking to improve upon its 8-10 showing in the Big Ten and punch a ticket to the big dance next March.
Minnesota will be returning three of five starters from last year's club, all of whom are seniors. Joining them will be a mix of veterans, transfers, and a few young recruits looking to contribute early. How Pitino develops the rotation will go a long way towards determining if the Gophers can take the next step after their postseason success.
Here's an early look at how the minutes may be spread around in The Barn this fall.
The most significant loss Minnesota has endured this offseason is the graduation of Austin Hollins, the NIT's Most Outstanding Player and the team's second-leading scorer. Hollins was a three-year starter, and part of a three-headed backcourt monster Pitino used to push the pace last season. Replacing his scoring, rebounding, and leadership will fall to the two returning starters at guard, Andre Hollins and Deandre Mathieu.
As he enters his final season in Minneapolis, Hollins has paced the Gophers in scoring the past two seasons. 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. The 6'2" Hollins certainly has the potential to increase that output and become one of the conference's top scorers as a senior, and Pitino will need him to.
Lining up next to Hollins will be the speedy Mathieu, who transferred to Minnesota a season ago and put together an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten performance as well. The point guard averaged 12 points a contest, and was fourth in the conference with 4.2 assists per game, while serving as the engine for the Gophers fast-paced offense. Mathieu shot a solid 51 percent from the floor, 49 percent from three-point range, and 75 percent at the charity stripe in his first season with the team.
Filling the hole left by Austin Hollins' departure is the number one question for Minnesota heading towards next season, and a newcomer may be the answer. Assuming Pitino continues to look to push the tempo with three guards, junior college transfer Carlos Morris, a former three-star recruit who averaged 13.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game for Chipola College as a freshman, has the skillset to step into the starting lineup.
Also in the mix in a pretty thin backcourt is sophomore Daquein McNeil, who appeared in 30 games for the Gophers as a freshman, and incoming recruit Nate Mason, who arrives on campus as a three-star recruit out of Jacksonville. Zach Lofton, a 6'4" transfer from Illinois State who averaged 11.3 points and three rebounds a game last season, will provide help in the future, but must sit out a year before hitting the court.
Hollins and Mathieu provide Minnesota with a pair of veteran leaders in the backcourt, and they are joined by a pair of fellow seniors on the frontline that will look to hold the ship steady in the physical Big Ten. 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" senior averaged just five points a game a season ago, though he did lead the team with a 6.6 rebounding average.
Eliason is one of two fifth-year seniors the Gophers will be able to rely on in the paint, as Maurice Walker also returns. Walker has worked hard to trim down and become a contributor after arriving at 340 pounds as a freshman. The big man made big strides last season, trimming down to 250 pounds and averaging career highs in scoring (7.8 ppg) and rebounding (4.5 rbg), and will be looking to continue his improvement.
With Eliason and Walker handling center duties, Minnesota has a question mark at the power forward spot after Oto Osenieks suffered a career-ending knee injury. Junior Joey King, who averaged 7.1 points per game a season ago, is the most likely to step in, with sophomore Charles Buggs and freshman Josh Martin also in the mix for minutes. Incoming freshmen bigs Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou are all likely still in need of seasoning before being able to contribute.
Given what he has to work with, how might Pitino's rotation look when the Gophers open up the 2014-15 season?
PG: Mathieu, McNeil, Mason
SG: Hollins, McNeil
SF: Morris, McNeil
PF: King, Buggs
C: Eliason, Walker
Minnesota is primed to prove that it can contend in the Big Ten in 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 Austin Hollins and see some young players develop, they could find themselves in that other postseason tournament come March.