I guess I’ll start at the end. The Gophers are the 2014 NIT champions. The best of the second-best. The champion of the bubble teams. Conquerors of the consolation. All that. While it might not sound all that impressive only a year after being ranked as high as #8 in the nation and getting into the second round of the NCAA Tournament, think of the context.
Exactly one year ago we were little more than a week into the Richard Pitino era. The son of a legend who had a single season of Division I coaching experience under his belt, which came at a little more than a low-major commuter school in Florida. The Gophers had lost two icons to graduation, had their starting small forward transfer and were without a point guard. And after things had reached their virtual pinnacle under Tubby Smith, it wasn’t looking too peachy in Golden Gopher land.
The road ahead looked long and arduous, and Richard Pitino came to the table with a cast of misfits including a former fat power forward, a mid-major transfer from Drake, some tiny kid from a JUCO in Arizona and an FIU commit who hadn’t played a single college minute. Sure, he had a couple veterans at the wings, but there was no one to distribute the ball to them. And we’d seen what happens without a floor general.
Picked by most, if not all, to finish at or near the bottom of the conference, expectations were slim, if they existed at all. We didn’t know what we had to get excited about and success looked to be somewhere between being on the bubble and finishing ahead of Penn State. In short, it was going to be a long year.
Fast forward to now. Minnesota is raising a banner after winning five games in a row over relevant teams, saw tremendous growth in most, if not all, of its role players, and pulled off some wins over great conference opponents. They showed that they should be taken seriously in the Big Ten, could play with anyone and were dangerous at home. Further, Richard Pitino showed that he can coach players up, react to in-game situations effectively and get people excited about the program. In only a calendar year, Pitino transformed a program from a multi-year question mark of a project to one that is already believed to be one of the 25 best teams going into next season. Considering where we started 12 months ago; I call that a successful season.
So what are the main takeaways from this year?
Mo Walker looks like he’s actually going to be dangerous
Perhaps the biggest success story of the year, outside of the coming-out party of Drizzy Mathieu, was Mo Walker. Clocking in at a hefty 310 pounds at the end of last season, one of Pitino’s first orders of business was telling Walker to shape up, literally, or forget about playing time. He responded, dropping an incredible 50 pounds to a slim 260, and maybe more. Considering that he came to campus as a freshman weighing close to 350, he’s shed a staggering 90 pounds.
But the biggest question before the season was whether or not he could actually show some chops on the court. Before this year we knew Bigg Mo to be little more than a lumbering beast of a player who didn’t know where to be and had trouble keeping up with the offense. And for the first half of the season nothing really had changed. But then something clicked and he became a fixture, and even a necessity, in Minnesota’s front court. In fact, after his 18-point, 9-rebound game against Wisconsin, he basically took over the paint duties and relegated Elliott Eliason to the bench. In the latter half of the season Walker had 8 games in double figures and played 20+ minutes in 14 games. He showed touch and an ability to carve out space for himself, while getting to the line a fair amount. To put it punctuationally, he transformed himself from a question mark into an exclamation point. Pitino is now tasking him with adding muscle in the offseason, and if Walker can show additional growth, he’ll be a scary dude to face on any given night.
Ladies and gentleman, we have a point guard, and his name is DRIZZY
Sometimes frustrating, always electric and never short on confidence, Deandre Mathieu proved to even the staunchest of doubters that he could play at a Big Ten level. That’s impressive, considering that two years ago he couldn’t hack it at Morehead State and had to take a year at a JUCO in Arizona just to prove that he should be taken seriously at the D-I level.
Another one of Pitino’s “come with me” pieces, it wasn’t clear whether Mathieu would be a one-year stopgap at the point or whether he could turn into something more of a fixture. But as games piled up during the season, it was clear that the latter was taking hold. In fact, Mathieu may have been the MVP of the team, making circus shots regularly, showing an acute ability to get to the hoop, and flashing some skills from deep. And whenever the Gophers needed a pick-me-up, Mathieu was there with a steal and layup. Like clockwork.
Perhaps more importantly, it became clear that the Gophers were in trouble whenever Mathieu was on the bench. Without a legitimate backup option at PG (sorry Mav), things were visibly less efficient and fluid with Mathieu off the court. And as evidenced by his 30 minutes of playing time per game, Pitino agreed. In fact, he named him the team’s MVP in his post-season roundup blog post.
Mathieu showed that he should not only be taken seriously as a Big Ten PG, but that he might actually be one of the more dangerous floor generals in the conference heading into next season. Teams just did not know how to contain him and, for the most part, he was his own worst enemy. Showing additional maturity next year should cement his status as a premier guard in the conference.
Elliott, where did you go?
I’m sure you’re all like, “Okay, Zips, enough with the flowery jibber jabber. This team didn’t even make the tournament.” Yes, there were some holes this year. Most notably, we saw some regression from center Elliott Eliason in a year that looked to be a prime opportunity for him to take a major step forward.
After a string of great games that seemed to illustrate that Eliason had arrived as a serviceable center, someone turned off whatever switch was in the “on” position. In fact, soon after Eliason’s double-double in a win over Ohio State on Jan. 16, he wouldn’t score in double figures or grab double digit rebounds for the rest of the season – a span of 20 games. And after playing at least 25 minutes in 13 of the first 18 games of the season, he would only see that much court time twice the rest of the way. How does a guy go from looking like one of the best bigs in the conference to basically becoming an afterthought of a bench player?
It’s a sad, curious case, but one that was clearly evident as the season wore on. Part of it was the emergence of Mo Walker, but his emergence was largely due to Eliason’s ineffectiveness, at least initially. It was mostly the fault of Eliason himself. He fell into bad habits that he should have shook early in the season, most of which came from being over-aggressive and committing bad fouls. Often he would find himself on the bench early in games with two fouls while we watched Mo Walker mature right before our eyes. He stopped getting his shots to fall, looking lost on offense and never consistently getting to the basket. And, while he was definitely effective on defense, he wasn’t nearly the imposing figure he was in the first half of the year. Outside of a seven block showcase in the NIT, he only had two games in the latter half of the season with more than two blocks.
His junior year was supposed to be a season of tremendous growth, and it certainly looked like he was on the path to maturing early on. Instead, after a season’s worth of games under his belt, it looks like he has some additional growth to do before he reaches the potential he’s flashed, and time is running out for him to truly take it to the next level.
Have we found a coach? I think we have.
I had an affinity for Pitino before he even coached his first game. Maybe it was the pedigree (I hate that word) or maybe it was the coaching style that I heard he was bringing to the table that was such a 180 from Tubby Smith. Either way, I wanted a coach who was energetic, who understood how to adapt, who got the most out of his players and who showed the promise of growth. And even though he’s a greenhorn at 31 (!) years old, this season cemented Pitino as the coach that I believe can bring the team to the next level. He’s driven, has the buy-in of his players and, most of all, is respected by his peers. For a guy who’s barely older than the guys he coaches, it speaks volumes to be treated as an equal in a major conference like the Big Ten.
It would have been one thing had he floundered in his inaugural season in Dinkytown, as not much was expected nor required. Instead, he evolved the team by a generation in only one season, and put them in position to succeed right away. You can never predict sophomore slumps, but coming back with many of the guys that he’s successfully coached up, I can’t imagine why we’d see any sort of regression in year two. Freshman and seniors alike responded to him, and the fact that he got both Maverick Ahanmisi and Austin Hollins to play the best basketball of their careers in the frickin’ NIT is amazing to me. That’s when those guys are supposed to be on their way out.
So, that’s all I got for now. It was a fun season, and never dull on entertainment. And at this point, at least, it sure looks like we’re on to something. Hopefully Reusse’s pissed about that.
Have a good summer.
- What more can you say about a guy like Austin Hollins? I’ll miss him the most out of any player who’s graduated over the past few years. I loved his defense, for sure, but who knew he was such an amazing dunker? And the fact that he was able to put together a career-defining string of games to lead the team to the NIT title was a lot of fun to see. For a guy who fell victim to slumps, having him go out on a high note is special. And he made the final shot of his career.
- Same goes for Maverick Ahanmisi. I can’t say that I’ll miss him as a player, but he was a clear leader for the team and showed a lot of heart by playing his best basketball down the stretch when the team needed him to step up. Two career highs in his final seven games? That’s fun.
- Joey King was another guy who lit it up down the stretch, and indicates a pattern that I hope is representative of Pitino’s coaching ability. He showed himself to be a serviceable, unspectacular forward, but was mostly a minutes eater. Down the stretch, however, he became a scoring machine, logging 14 or more points in four of the final six games. Prior to that he’d had four double digit scoring games all season.