Lost among the chatter of arbitrary NCAA decision-making, tournament expansion, and conference realignment, the power forward has gone extinct, at least in the Big Ten. Even a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a Big Ten team to take the court without two true, back to the basket, low post players. With the graduations of Derrick Nix and Trevor Mbakwe after last season, one would be hard-pressed to find what was once the staple of Big Ten basketball, a true power forward. Now, the conference’s rank forwards are slashers and shooters, and should soon include a converted shooting guard.

Once the NCAA decided that Rakeem Buckles would be keeping his talents in South Beach, it was clear that power forward would be the weak spot in the Gophers rotation. After all but one non-conference game, it appears to be time to abandon the idea of the traditional one center, two guard, and two forward starting line up and to put the Gophers’ five best players on the court.

By looks alone, Austin Hollins is a bit too short and much too skinny to be a Big Ten forward. However, his statistics tell a different story. When compared to Joey King and Oto Osenieks, it quickly becomes clear Hollins is by the far the team’s best option to join Elliott Eliason in the front court.

Player ORtng OR% DR% BLK%
Austin Hollins 118.6 9.3 15.9 3.2
Oto Osenieks 107.7 4.6 13.7 2.3
Joey King 108 6.1 9.4 1.5
Malik Smiith 118.3 0.5 10.1 0.5

A player’s offensive rating (ORtng) in the above chart, is the number of points a player produces per possession that they use multiplied by 100. Points can be produced by made field goals, free-throws, or assists. The great news is that all of the forwards who see significant playing time are efficient players on the offensive end. However, in terms of offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding percentage (rebounds corralled divided by possible rebounds) as well as block percentage (percentage of shot attempts blocked while a player is on the court), Hollins looks much more like a true power forward, despite being four and five inches shorter than Osenieks and King respectively. Joe Coleman and Chip Armelin had rebounding numbers similar to Osenieks and King, and no one would mistake them for post players.

If Oto Osenieks left the starting line-up, and Austin Hollins moved from guard to forward, Malik Smith would finally see the playing time he has earned. There were a lot of questions about the one season rental from Florida International. No one quite knew if he could play at a high major level, or if he could be anything more than a chucker. It is true that he loves to shoot, but he is hardly a chucker because he makes too many shots. His offensive rating is third on the team and 382nd nationally. While Smith is hardly much of a rebounding or shot blocking threat, the drop off between Smith and the typical forwards is not dramatic, and somehow Smith is a better defensive rebounder than King. Richard Pitino’s offense doesn’t require two post-players. When Osenieks or King are in the game, they spend most of their time slashing to the basket or spotting up for three-point shots. Austin Hollins can do both of these very well, and because of his quickness would be difficult for bigger players to guard. On defense, size might matter more, especially against certain Big Ten teams.

The following chart lists the heights of  the tallest guards and forwards of each Big Ten team who are in the top five on their team in minutes played.

Team Tallest Guard Tallest Forward
Illinois 6’4″ 6’7″
Indiana 6’7″ 6’8″
Iowa 6’6″ 6’9″
Michigan 6’6″ 6’6″
Michigan State 6’4″ 6’6″
MN w/Smith 6’2″ 6’4″
MN w/Osenieks 6’4″ 6’8″
Nebraska 6’7″ 6’6″
Northwestern 6’5″ 6’6″
Ohio State 6’4″ 6’8″
Penn State 6’4″ 6’7″
Purdue 6’6″ 6’6″
Wisconsin 6’3″ 6’7″

In the current rotation, Gopher guards and forwards are actually pretty average. Replacing a 6’8” forward with a 6’2” guard obviously changes that. However, against most Big Ten teams, the size advantage of opponents won’t be particularly overwhelming. Malik Smith can probably guard a 6’4” player, and Austin Hollins has successfully defended 6’6” and 6’7” players in the past. The real question will be how well Hollins can defend the likes of Aaron White while Smith or Andre Hollins keep track of Will Sheehy or Roy Devyn Marble.

As Malik Smith’s play has improved, so has his playing time. If Pitino continues to distribute minutes as he has the last couple of week, Smith will soon have played more minutes than either Osenieks or King, and the conversation about how to solve the power forward problem will be over. Then we can get back to this season’s preferred discussion, does Malik Smith shoot to much.