The Minnesota Golden Gophers started the 2013-2014 season with a win on Friday night against Lehigh, but three losses are sucking all the oxygen out of the proverbial room. The Gophers lost mega-recruit Reid Travis to Stanford, lost Mo Walker for six games due to violation of university policy, and may or may not have lost Wally Ellenson for a game or two due to a confrontation with the coaching staff that may or may not have happened. Finding someone to replace Travis will be impossible. However, thanks to some lucky scheduling, Ellenson and Walker might not need to be replaced at all.
Richard Pitino will tell you he is a lucky guy. He is lucky to have a Hall of Fame coach for a father. He was lucky to have assistant coaching jobs under his father and Billy Donovan. He is certainly lucky to have a Big Ten coaching job at his age. He’s even lucky when he has to suspend a player. Mo walker is obviously a large individual, and the Gophers obviously are short on other large individuals. Their opponents in the early season, including Montana, are just plain short.
The Grizzlies, two-time defending Big Sky Conference champions and Minnesota’s opponent on Tuesday evening, were a perimeter oriented team last season, and lost their most productive inside player to graduation last season. They were a horrendous offensive rebounding team a season ago (334th in the country) and don’t seem likely to improve much this season. The Grizzlies return 6’9″ senior Eric Hutchinson and 7’0″ sophomore, who could be formidable if they could stay out of foul trouble. So far they have not proven this to be the case. Junior college Chris Kemp, a poor-man’s Montana version of Trevor Mbakwe, should at the very least give the Grizzlies some width-down low, and could develop into an inside threat.
Montana more than makes up for their lack of inside size with a skilled, and even big back court. Kareen Jamar is in the running to be the best player you’ve never heard of, and may soon want to forget. He was the Big Sky player of year last season, and led the Grizzlies in rebounding, assists, and blocks, and was second in scoring. The 6’5” 210 guard can score in a variety of ways, and could be a post-up threat against the Gophers shorter and skinnier guards. Spencer Coleman, a 6’6” 210 forward, got lost in Montana’s log jam of a back-court, but still managed to score 7.6 points per game in only 21 minutes per game. He scored in double figures 10 times, and should be a consistent double-digit scorer as his minutes increase.
The Gophers, who should still win even though Montana might be their best non-conference opponent, need to build off their season opening win. In their victory, the Gophers got excellent production out of their starting front-court, as Elliot Eliason and Oto Osenieks combined for 19 points and 20 rebounds, and three blocks. The Gophers don’t need either Eliason or Osenieks to score a lot, but they do need them on the court to clog the lane and pull down rebounds. The Gophers will need at least one of them on the court at all times until Walker returns. While Joey King can certainly score, 20 points in 27 minutes again Lehigh, he is not much of a defender or rebounder. I am still having a hard time wrapping my mind around a player of King’s size (6’9”) can play 27 minutes, not commit a foul, and come up with only 1 rebound.
Minnesota’s back court continues to be a strength, particularly on the defensive end. Gopher guards helped force steals on 15.1% of Lehigh’s possessions, 11th in the country through the first weekend of games. Despite the pressure defense, and the new NCAA emphasis on calling hand-checking, the Gophers committed only 15 fouls. Montana will have a new primary ball handler this season, having lost Will Cherry to graduation. The Grizzlies haven’t played a game this season, and whomever their primary ball handler turns out to be (possibly Kareem Jamar) will have to face Minnesota’s pressure defense, in addition to the pressure of playing on the road in their first game in a new role.
It is still a mystery how Minnesota’s small line-up and fast-paced style will fare against power-conference teams. However, they should be fine against Montana as long as they stay with their plan and don’t beat themselves. For a new coach and several new players against a quality opponent, this may not be as easy as it sounds.