A new season means excitement, anticipation and, most of all, uncertainly. Richard Pitino builds on a successful inaugural season as Minnesota’s head coach, with plenty of weapons to help extend the momentum an NIT championship. Things appear to be on the upswing, but with the notable loss of Austin Hollins, a Jekyll and Hyde routine from Elliott Eliason last year, and a ton of new faces on the roster, things are anything but settled.
To get us thinking about the upcoming season, we put together five burning questions that have yet to be answered.
1. Who will win the battle to start at center?
Elliott Eliason was the unquestioned starter at center last year … until he wasn’t. All of a sudden, in the middle of the NIT championship run Mo Walker, deservedly, took over the starting duties and did good things. But let’s not count Eliason out of the running yet. As much as Walker brings to the position from a size and scoring perspective, Eliason is a force to be reckoned with on defense (3rd and 6th in the B1G, respectively, in BPG and RPG). And let’s not forget that he had five straight games to start the conference season where he was utterly dominant. Plagued by stupid mistakes, if he can get out of his own head he might just take that leap we’ve all expected.
2. Can Josh Martin overtake Joey King as the starting PF this year?
Gotta love Joey King. As FrothyGopher once said, he’s a real meat and potatoes guy. And his performance down the stretch of the season was nothing short of spectacular. But let’s be honest — he’s undersized for a PF and just a little slow to be a B1G SF. He’s a great sixth man, but when you have a freak like Josh Martin waiting in the wings, how long can he be held off? I fully expect King to start the season as the PF, but that will officially start the clock on Martin developing into the dominant front court presence we know he can and should be. It’s simply a matter of how fast he grows up.
3. Can the Gophers take advantage of a softer conference schedule?
After what seems like forever, the B1G scheduling gods (or whoever gives Wisconsin an annual cakewalk to the postseason) have finally smiled on the Gophers. Their non-conference slate is embarrassing, but if you look at the conference lineup you’ll notice that Minnesota only plays Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State once each. Those are three of the top four teams in the conference. In a year where we’d all like to see the Gophers sitting at home comfortably on Selection Sunday, having a relatively softer schedule on the books feels like a nice start.
4. How much playing time will Charles Buggs see?
Will we ever get to see what Charles Buggs is capable of? Fans clamoring for #FreeBuggs were rewarded with a 19-minute, 13-point explosion against Iowa where he seemingly couldn’t miss. But he only ended up with 9 points in 9 games the rest of the season, and never saw close to that much action again. Which begs the question — how much does Pitino want or need to use Buggs in his rotation? He rarely brings more than 8 guys through the lineup, and with 9 guys (Hollins, Mathieu, Mason, Morris, McNeil, King, Eliason, Walker, Martin) who could conceivably fit in a rotation it’s hard to see where he’ll find space. He isn’t a particularly great fit in a guard-heavy system, but he also hasn’t been given many chances to succeed.
5. Can Richard Pitino strike JUCO gold twice with Squirrel Morris?
Last year a little known guy who couldn’t hack it at an OVC school bucked every expectation we had and became the team’s MVP. Was Pitino onto something or did he know what he had with Drizzy Mathieu? This year, we get another highly-touted JUCO recruit in Carlos “Squirrel” Morris, who was the 7th-rated JUCO prospect according to 247. A defensive-minded guard who is expected to be a great fit for Pitino’s system, we’ll soon know if Pitino knows exactly what he’s looking for when trolling the JUCO waters, or if he’s simply throwing darts. Something tells me the former is the safer bet.