JF

One must forgive the media and message board posters for being, in the words of Richard Pitino, “obsessed about starting line-ups.” A lot of ink and pixels can be used when described by arguing who should start and come off the bench. There is also the matter of fancy graphics packages on television and pre-game introductions (of which “I AM… OTO OSENIEKS” was the greatest ever) which place undue attention on the matter of who will be on the court when the jump-ball occurs.  However, basketball games are 40 minutes long, and often the last four minutes, and not the opening four minutes determine the outcome of a game. In a better, albeit very disjointed world, the lights would dim after the under four minute time-out, and we’d have a proper introduction for the players who matter most: the closers.

Richard Pitino definitely does have some decisions to make. From small forward to center, it isn’t completely clear who deserves the most playing time, or if a small forward, power forward, or center  all belong on the court at the same time. If he does go with more conventional line-ups, he’ll decide between Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker at center, Joey King and Josh Martin at power forward, and Daquein McNeil and Squirrel Morris at small forward.

Basketball isn’t soccer, in which there is a limit on substitutions and starters are play the vast majority of the game. A starter in basketball could be benched after the first dead ball, or they might play a full forty minutes.  Because neither the starters or the closers have limit on their playing time, psychology and skill set can matter a lot more than pure talent.

Maurice Walker vs. Elliott Eliason

One of the more intriguing position battles is at the center position where a pair of fight year seniors anchor what should be a strength of the Gopher line-up. For as long the two have been with the Gophers, Eliason has been ahead of Walker on the depth chart, even though Walker seemed to be the better player last year. However, when games have mattered most, Walker has seemed to get the most playing time. This is the way it should be, and contrary to conventional wisdom, Walker coming off the bench is also the way it should be.

Walker is a better offensive player, a much better free-throw shooter, and not much worse rebounder and defender than Eliason.  In late game situations, when fouling opponents out and making free-throws often decides the outcome of the game, Walker is too valuable to leave on the bench. However, because of his own propensity to get in foul trouble (6.4 fouls committed per 40 minutes), often the only way to make sure he is available  at the end of the game is to make sure he doesn’t play too much early in the game. Walker’s personality also seems well suited to be a bench player. When he comes into the game, he is ready to take over. He doesn’t need time to adjust to the game, and always seems energized. These are wonderful attributes for a bench player, but they aren’t the best for a the biggest player on the team who also can’t seem to avoid contact.

Elliot Eliason doesn’t seem well suited to come off the bench. While no one could ever question his effort or energy, his offensive confidence seems to build throughout his time on the court. The defense and rebounding is always there, but his willingness to attack the basket or take an open shots seems to increase as he adjust to the flow of the game. If he didn’t start, there is a real possibility that Eliason would never find the flow of the game to be a contributer on the court.

Mo Walker is the better player, and should close the game on the court, but if he started, he wouldn’t be around when he needed most.

Joey King vs. Josh Martin

I’ll be honest and acknowledge that I’ve never seen Josh Martin play. I’ll also acknowledge that Joey King might not be the same player he was last season. He gained 10 pounds during the off-season, and has looked much stronger in the few lips of practice that I’ve seen.  The closer at the power forward position will ultimately comedown to whether JKing has learned to rebound and if Martin has learned to shoot.

Joey King was a surprisingly effective offensive player last season, finishing the season as the best Gopher shooter. However, his rebounding ability was that of an average shooting guard.  Late in basketball games there are a lot of rushed shots, a lot of rebounds, and potentially, a lot of second chance points. Forcing a missed shot is not a good defensive play unless it is followed by  a defensive  rebound. Last season King secured only 9.8% of available defensive rebounds. That poor rebounding can cost a team a game, and poor defensive rebounding did cost the Gophers a win against Northwestern last season. A team’s shooting percentage increases with each additional shot attempt during a possession, so allowing an offensive rebound doesn’t only give the opponent an extra chance to score, it also gives them an additional better chance to score. Unless King’s rebounding has improved significantly, he is something of a liability late in the game.

Josh Martin, from the little that is known of him, is the opposite of Joey King.He should be an excellent rebounder, combining exceptional athleticism with a mean streak that can come in handy when battling for a ball bouncing off the rim. However, his offense, if it exists at all, is very raw. Dunks shouldn’t be a problem, but anything else might be.

The closer at power forward will probably be situational. If the Gophers are losing late in the game, expect to see a lot of King. If they are trying to preserve a lead, expect to see a lot of Martin, especially if he isn’t a liability. If game situations allow it, there will probably be a lot of offense for defense substitutions too.

Daquein McNeil vs. Squirrel Morris Talent does matter too sometimes, and it is talent alone that will determine if McNeil or Morris close games on the wing. By all accounts, they have similar skill-sets, so the better player will probably get the most, and most crucial playing time. at least by the end of the season. Both players players are about the same size (6’3” for McNeil and 6’5” for Morris). Both have the athletic ability to be good defenders. Both would rather drive to the basket than shoot from the outside. Both are above average ball handlers for the small forward position. If last season is any indication,  Morris would probably be the better player. He was one of the better junior college players in the country. Meanwhile, McNeil struggled to find playing time. Things can change during the off-season though.

And Carlos Morris is new to Pitino’s system, which could give McNeil a bit of an edge., but probably not enough of an edge to overcome a true deficit in talent. The better player will get the most playing time, and will probably start too. So if you want to debate who should start, limit that conversation to the small forward position, since you’ll also be discussing who will be the closer.