The Richard Pitino era got off to an unofficial roaring start as the Gophers easily handled Cardinal Stritch on Friday night. It was a typically sloppy affair, as new players adjusted to new roles, all while shaking off early season rust and jitters. It was clearly a new team though, complete with a new coach who acts an awful lot like Bruce Weber on the sidelines. Seeing the Gophers play someone other than themselves finally gave us a chance to see what the next era of Golden Gophers basketball is all about.
One of the biggest questions going into the season is just how bad will the front court be, and this continues to be a giant unanswered question. Elliott Eliason seems to be essentially the same player as a year ago, but with a bit more polish on the offensive end. Maurice Walker looked really good, and his 16 minutes of playing time pays testament to his improved conditioning. Joey King played like a power forward, and attempted only one three-pointer. However, none of these observations suggest the front-court rotation is settled. A bit more polish, avoiding exhaustion, and knowing how to play your position do not suggest all is well, and someone at some point needs to step up.
Unfortunately, it does not appear Oto Osenieks will be stepping up any time soon, and neither will his misused back-court mate Maverick Ahanmisi. Osenieks had one of the worst games of any basketball player ever. While he managed to be in the right place at the right time on nearly every position, he missed two dunks, two free-throws, and six jumpers. Maverick Ahanmisi wasn’t much better, committing four turnovers including one of the traditional falling down in traffic variety.
If Ahanmisi and Osenieks aren’t going to step up, the question becomes, who will? Austin Hollins looked like a completely different player, with supreme confidence and serious demeanor. He appears to understand that this is a make or break season for his professional prospects, and he should thrive in Richard Pitino’s full-court defense, where he led the team with four steals.
The full court defense was impressive, and it didn’t come at the expense of half-court defense for the most part. Dre Mathieu and Austin Hollins have excellent foot speed, and were able to get back on defense when there wasn’t a steal. However, the frenetic pace slowed as the game went on, and fatigue became an issue. The effort probably wasn’t lacking on both ends of the floor, but exhaustion can hamper even the greatest effort. Minnesota’s disappointing 37% free-throw shooting may have also had something to do with fatigue. It remains to be seen if the Gophers will punch themselves out before they wear out their opponents.
The first exhibition game gave us an idea of what Richard Pitino wants his team to do. The final exhibition game, and the majority of the relatively soft non-conference season, will give Pitino a chance to find out what is actually possible.