The beginnings of a new coaching era are fraught with uncertainty. And it’s almost downright scary to consider that this year’s Gophers are a completely different-looking team, both literally and figuratively. Gone are the days of physical domination down low, but also gone are the days of plodding, sleep-inducing half-court sets. Instead, we have a team that is expected to run, gun and harass the opposing team on both ends of the court for 40 minutes.
We finally got to see that play out in a game that actually matters Friday night against Lehigh. Honestly, I had horrible daymares about the Gophers failing to execute, getting behind early and letting Lehigh walk away with an unanticipated win to start the Richard Pitino era. Instead, the Gophers did exactly what they should do – blow out a clearly inferior team. Behind inspired play from Elliott Eliason, Joey King and Andre Hollins, the Gophers jumped out to an early lead and really never looked back (save for a Mountain Hawk run in the middle of the second half) in a decisive 81-62 victory.
Now, this wasn’t the same Lehigh team that upset Duke a couple years ago and sent players to the NBA. No, this is a Patriot League team in rebuilding mode, without much of a front court. But, still, my biggest takeaway from the game is the new-look Gophers destroyed a team exactly when they should have. And with a new coaching staff and a lot of new personnel, seeing them do what they set out to do is comforting. Especially on a day where Reid Travis committed to Stanford, Mo Walker was suspended for six games, and there was an alleged tiff between the Ellenson family and Pitino (which has since been put to bed).
Details are still sparse in the Walker situation, and it’s unclear exactly why he was suspended. Still, six games is a lot. The main benefactor, however, was clearly Joey King, who ran with the opportunity by scoring a game high 20 points in 27 minutes. King is a power forward who can step back and shoot, and that was on display in a game where he went 6-10 from the field while adding 2 three-pointers.
Overall, the Gophers out-muscled Lehigh exactly how they should have. With a non-existent front court, the Gophers used their size for easy putbacks and second chances. Elliott Eliason notched his first career double-double, scoring 11 points and grabbing 17 rebounds, 7 of which were offensive. Still, the rebounding battle was nearly equal, and the Gophers gave up 14 offensive rebounds to the Hawks. As they begin to face teams with more of a presence down low, it will be interesting to see how they fare.
Up next are the Montana Grizzlies on Tuesday.
Notes and Thoughts:
- In another departure from Tubby Time, Richard played basically 7 players instead of 11. I was very vocal about Tubby’s awful subbing patterns last year so it was refreshing to see the players allowed to get in a groove on the court and only rotate a select few.
- I’ve been hard on Oto Osenieks, but he made good strides after receiving the start. He even hit two-three pointers, equaling his TOTAL from last season. Especially with Walker out for six games, the Gophers will need Osenieks to be a serviceable player around the basket. He picked up four fouls in the game, but was a good change of pace for Joey King. We’ll see who gets the start next game after King’s explosion.
- Drizzy Mathieu played exactly like the point guard we want him to be. Granted, he was out of control a bit on occasion, but the dude racked up 9 assists and nabbed three steals while only scoring two points. The Hollinses are crazy effective when they get the ball distributed TO them, and having someone like Mathieu running point is going to be a lot of fun this season.
- Speaking of steals, the defense was just as advertised. Lots of full court trapping, lots of running up and down the court and lots of steals (11).
- For their first time out, the Minnesota fundamentals were in good shape. After a horrific showing at the free throw line in their first exhibition, they shot 86% against Lehigh. And the 12 turnovers were far below what I expected from this team in their debut.
- Elliott Eliason finally looks like a Big Ten center, size wise. He’s not going to be the biggest guy out there, but he’s added a ton of muscle and finally looks imposing. However, he’s still picking up the cheap fouls, which is a key area he’ll need to improve on, considering Minnesota’s lack of size down low. But with a nice double-double it appears, at least initially, that he’s starting to get it.
- Maverick Ahanmisi picked up only 9 minutes off the bench in backup point guard duties. And unless Mathieu runs into foul trouble or turnover problems, I’d expect that to remain the case for the foreseeable future.
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