If there’s one thing thing that will be markedly different from the Tubby Smith-era Gophers (besides the up-tempo game, more shooting, a bigger guard focus) it’s the frontcourt. Gone is the imposing, physical and freakishly athletic forward duo of Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe. Those two gave the Gophers a supreme rebounding and scoring advantage down low and went a long ways in defining the team during the past few years. In fact, the transition is so great that this year’s frontcourt is still almost completely undecided. In fact, it’s a mess. Will that matter? It’s hard to say, since we don’t really know what we’re working with. One thing’s for certain: the guys slated to get the most minutes are unproven. Gameplay in the Big Ten is generally typecast as one that features physical play down low and bruising battles that are won on the boards and on the block. In years past the Gophers carried a significant advantage in those areas and won, or at least competed, in games because of their size and strength.
Now, the Gophers this year are not completely without size and strength. Elliott Eliason is a recognizable name from last year, but even EE has some growing to do before he is considered an imposing threat in the frontcourt. Mo Walker is another project and, again, isn’t a guaranteed contributor. Even Joey King, a potential impact transfer, isn’t even officially cleared by the NCAA to join the Gophers. In Part 1 of our season preview, we took a look at the backcourt, which carries the most dangerous weapons for Minnesota this year. It’s a crowded field, but there are clear contributors who proved last season that they should be taken seriously. The frontcourt? Well, that’s a different story. Let’s take a look.
Eliason is the de facto veteran in the frontcourt, and about as clear of a starter down there as we have. While he averaged fewer minutes, points and rebounds in his second full season, it’s not fair to say that the dude didn’t show some growth. On a team that was absent a clear-cut point guard, Eliason was perhaps the most gifted passer on the team. At 6-11 he has a great view of the court and uses that vision to make some really sweet passes. But playing behind Williams and Mbakwe, he never really got his chance to shine. His shot isn’t all that consisten and he needs to work on his touch closer to the basket, but anyone who has seen him play can certainly say he isn’t short on energy. He never stops trying and brings an intensity to the court that’s hard to match. As one of the team’s veterans, though, it’s time to put pen to paper and show some growth. We saw Colton Iverson struggle with some of the same issues when he was on the team, and took a tremendous leap when he left for Colorado State. Eliason will have plenty of chances to prove himself and show growth, and with an offense that’s likely to rely on quick passes and high basketball IQ, Eliason is a good bet to be a key cog in the lineup.
Maurice (Mo) Walker, F, JR
Holy cow, this dude is massive. But that size still hasn’t translated to sustained on-court success. In fact, it might have even been a detriment. At his best, Walker was a fairly agile big guy with decent touch. At his worst, he was a lumbering beast of a player who didn’t know where to be and had trouble keeping up with the offense. On his arrival, Richard promptly challenged Walker to shape up, literally, or risk losing playing time. And you know what? He responded, dropping an incredible 50 pounds from his 310-pound weight at the end of last season to a slim 260 when we last checked. Considering that he came to campus as a freshman weight close to 350 pounds, he’s shed a staggering 90 pounds. That’s dedication. People say he’s nearly unrecognizable these days, which speaks to his focus on getting in playing shape. We haven’t seen Walker really contribute on a big scale since he’s been here, but we also haven’t seen him play when he’s supposedly in shape. Like Eliason, he’s another question mark, but the good news is he seems to be taking the challenge from his head coach seriously. That’s saying something.
Another question mark. Noticing a theme here? It’s not that King won’t contribute, it’s WILL HE GET THE CHANCE? The NCAA is a curious institution, and their decisions on who gets a waiver to transfer and who doesn’t often seems completely arbitrary. King is seeking a transfer waiver from Drake to be near his brother, who has cancer. But with the powers-that-be holding the keys to the gate, there’s no telling whether King will actually get his request approved. If he does, then the Gophers secure an interesting weapon in their frontcourt. King can pull down the boards but is also capable of stepping out and hitting threes. That’s a killer combination. And it’s not like he can’t be taken seriously from beyond the arc as the dude shot 35% from deep last season for the Bulldogs. In a system that relies on good shooters, having a PF that can keep defenses honest might mitigate the lack of size the Gophers will face throughout the season. That is, if he’s allowed to transfer here.
Charles Buggs, F, FR
Buggs was a Tubby recruit but stuck with program after the coaching change. Combine that with the fact that Pitino apparently saw enough good things to give him a vote of confidence and not run him out and maybe we have something brewing. What should we expect of Buggs? Again, another huge question mark. He can jump out of the gym and apparently he’s a decent shooter, but since we haven’t seen a minute of court time from him it’s hard to say how he stacks up against the three guys above. He’ll get his shot to earn playing time, and if King really doesn’t end up coming here, then Buggs will be an important piece of the puzzle. Just remember, he’s a freshman.
Osenieks is a curious case. He was brought in as something of a 3-point specialist, but in the last two years we’ve seen very little from the Latvian. One thing’s for sure – the dude was ice cold last year from deep, hitting only two of 26 attempts. For a guy who doesn’t do a whole lot else, a season-long slump won’t do much for his stock. And with a team full of capable guards and 3-4 forwards who can probably contribute in a better capacity than Osenieks, I’d be shocked if we saw him on the court in any extended fashion.
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