A new era, with a new coach, a new system, and several new players tips off on Friday evening in Williams Arena. The Golden Gophers, coming off their most successful season in years, and another turbulent off-season, will take on the Lehigh Mountain Hawks of the Patriot League. The game will be streaming on ESPN3.
If you did not have the opportunity to see one of the exhibition games, be prepared for a jarring but not unpleasant experience. There are new faces on the sideline and on the court. Even some of the old faces look new. The offenses and defenses are different. New players are in new roles. If a new coach’s success is measured by the mark they put on a team, Richard Pitino has certainly been a success before coaching a single game.
The Mountain Hawks expected this to be a season of transition. NBA lottery pick C.J. McCollum would be gone, and there would be massive shoes to fill in the back court. Unfortunately for Lehigh and McCollum, that transition began after 12 games when McCollum was lost to a season ending injury. Despite the loss of their best player, Lehigh managed to string together a decent season, finished 10-4 in conference play and made the CBI tournament. A good portion of their success was due to McCollum’s classmates stepping up. Fellow seniors Gabe Knutson and Holden Greiner helped turn a perimeter oriented team into a team that could grind out baskets underneath. Now they are gone too, leaving the Hawks with two seniors and six freshmen.
The Gophers obviously have their own holes to fill in the interior. We likely won’t see how gaping those holes are tomorrow, as Minnesota will still have a significant size advantage. Justin Goldsborough is the only returning Lehigh player with significant size who played significant minutes, and at least last season, was not much of a scoring or rebounding threat. In fact, Lehigh as a team was not much a rebounding threat, ranking 305th and 262nd in offense and defensive rebounding last season. The interior players that the Gophers have are better than Lehigh, but they will need to stay on the court. Lehigh attempted an above average number of free-throws last season, and if the Gophers find themselves in foul trouble, there simply isn’t much help coming off the bench. Combined with the NCAA’s emphasis on calling fouls, and Minnesota’s interior advantage could be neutralized.
Perimeter play will be a strength for both Lehigh and Minnesota this season. Austin Hollins seems to have found a new level of focus, which should help him overcome his streaky tendencies. Andre Hollins will finally have some help with the ball handling duties with the addition of Dre Mathieu, which should give Andre Hollins more opportunities to score. Lehigh has their own terrific trio in the back court, though none share first or last names. Mackey McNight is an efficient scorer who also is an excellent distributor, and averaged nearly five assists per game last season. Anthony D’Orazio, an excellent on-ball defender, forced 1.3 steals per game. He is also a three-point shooting threat. Corey Schaefer played well in limited minutes last season, and seems poised to take on a bigger role this season.
The Gophers should beat Lehigh on Friday night, and rather comfortably. Their strong back court is better than Lehigh’s, and their unproven front court is better than Lehigh’s non-existent front court. If Lehigh hopes to spring an upset, they will need to make Minnesota’s interior players disappear with foul trouble.