Hey, it’s officially basketball season! One thing that gets me about the beginning of the year is it’s almost always overshadowed by NFL and college football. But with both Minnesota football teams doing what they usually do, there’s a nice segue into a college basketball season kickoff.
Want an interesting exercise? Off the top of your head, try to name 7 players on this year’s Gophers basketball team. It’s not quite an exercise in futility, but if you haven’t checked in with the team since the season-ending loss to Florida in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, then I’m sure a refresher is in order.
Hey, I don’t blame you. Of last year’s roster, six players have transferred or graduated, which means there are six brand new faces to the team. That’s a lot of turnover. Oh, AND WE HAVE A BRAND NEW COACH. We detailed the roster overhaul earlier this summer, but with the season right around the corner (the first exhibition game is Nov. 1) a formal introduction to this year’s team is warranted.
Richard Pitino, 31
Good ol’ Richard, what do we make of you? It was certainly an interesting offseason. Tubby was fired, Richard was brought on board and things were completely overhauled. Based on his tenure at Florida International, we can speculate and guess what Pitino will bring to the table from a strategy and execution standpoint, but the truth is no one will really know until the team takes the floor. From what I understand, he’s expected to run a fairly up-tempo style of play on both sides of the ball. That means lots of pressing, lots of fast breaks and lots of shooting. Lockdown defense was Tubby’s signature, but it wasn’t a hawkish, constant attack. Offensively, he was a disaster so I’m excited to see what Richard brings to the table. He recruits good shooters, which should be a welcome leap from what we’re used to.
We all know and love our darling Andre. He was the entire offense at times last year and could take over and win games entirely by himself at times. The 41-point outburst against Memphis in the Battle 4 Atlantis was the high point, but he closed the season on a different level, scoring at least 24 points in three of the final four games. Dominant when he’s at his best, Hollins is far and away the most dangerous weapon for the Gophers. But with the lack of a true PG last year, he often found himself out of position having to distribute the ball. He’s a serviceable PG, but much better suited as an off-guard where he can let his shot fly. With Richard in tow, Hollins will still see time at PG, but should spend most of his minutes knocking down jumpers in the SG spot. Why? Because of this guy:
Deandre (Dre) Mathieu, G, JR
DRIIIIIZZZZZYYY. Hey look, the Gophers have a true PG! Mathieu is a 5-9 guard who spent some time at Central Arizona Community College. What did he do with his time at a JUCO? He only averaged 17.1 ppg and dished out 6.5 assists. Last year he was an NJCAA first-team All American and was the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference Player of the Year. Okay, so those are great credentials, but how will that translate into Big Ten play? Hard to say, but having a true point guard is fun, isn’t it? Remember Al Nolen and how cool it was to have a guy who actually knew how to handle the ball? We won’t know the starting lineup for quite a while, but as the team’s only real PG threat, Mathieu has a good shot to nail down the opening day job. He’s fast, he can score and, as Pitino said, he’s the only pure point guard we have.
I won’t say the elder Hollins regressed last year, because he didn’t. However, given his amazingly hot start to the conference season, I was disappointed that he didn’t accomplish more by the end of the year. He went through a horrific four-game stretch late in the season where he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, but recovered to post a string of good games to finish it off. Tubby handled his struggles poorly, benching him erratically and not letting a good shooter work himself out of a funk. That said, I called Hollins our most important player last year and I still believe that. When he does well the team does well. He can take over games here and there and is downright deadly when his shot is on. But his real calling card is defense. A lockdown defender, Hollins creates havoc on the ball and should fit very well into Richard’s up-tempo defense. We know what we’re getting with Austin, for the most part, but he definitely has the opportunity to shine this year with a likely focus on getting more shots up on offense.
Smith is another newcomer to the backcourt and followed Pitino from FIU. Ordinarily players need to sit out one year after transferring, but the NCAA granted him a waiver to play immediately due to the low Academic Progress Rating (APR) at FIU. Smith is another candidate to start for the Gophers, potentially as the third guard. Why? The boy can straight up shoot. He led the Sun Belt Conference with 96 3-pointers last year. 96! For comparison, Andre Hollins had 81 last year to lead Minnesota. He hoisted up a lot of attempts from beyond the arc but actually hit them at a 36% clip. He should be a fun guy to watch this year.
“Day Day” was originally a recruit of Pitino’s at FIU, but decided to follow him to Minnesota. A freshman out of Baltimore, it’s unclear exactly how much court time he’ll see this year, especially with with so many weapons in the backcourt. ESPN rated him as the No. 94 point guard in its 2013 class, so the talent is there. He also looks to contribute from the defensive end, too. With long arms a quick feet, he’s a natural fit for Richard’s defensive style.
Wally Ellenson, G, SO
When he’s not jumping out of the gym (or into the Olympics), Ellenson is an interesting case. He was expected to redshirt last year to give him some time to develop, but after a conversation with the Ellenson family and Tubby, the decision was made to lift the redshirt well into the season. Ellenson received sparse minutes only saw action in 9 games, which amounted to, basically, a lot season. We never saw much of his abilities outside of a couple highlight dunks, which, I’ll admit, were really impressive. However, with a crowded backcourt it’s hard to see how Ellenson will immediately fit in. He’s not necessarily known for his shot, and with Pitino focused on guys who can shoot, I expect Ellenson’s minutes to continue to dwindle; at least until he proves himself. Of course, his brother, Henry, is a sought-after recruit. So maybe the team will throw Wally a bone in good faith.
Maverick Ahanmisi, G, SR
2013 was an interesting season for Ahanmisi. He made great strides in his shooting ability, but continued to show his shortcomings as a point guard. I’ll admit, I cover my eyes at times when he’s on the court and handling the ball, but last year was one of growth for Mav. He hit some key shots off the bench and showed that he can actually be trusted with an open shot. He even did his job at the free throw line. However, let’s call a spade a spade. Ahanmisi shouldn’t be handling the ball in any scenario and I don’t view him as a PG candidate any longer, even as a backup. He’s not capable of guarding other PGs on defense and his vision is lacking. However, I do see merit in him off the bench as a spot-up shooter. If last year was any indication he can actually hit some shots when he has the opportunity. And if Pitino ends up shooting as much as he says he will then Mav may yet find a secure role in the offense.
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