So it begins. We’ve seen one live exhibition and one intra-squad scrimmage, and heard from second and third-hand sources about another. What do we know about this year’s Gopher team? Well, not much. Andre Hollins is healthy, I guess. That’s about all we know. And that’s why the season opening game against Louisville is so simultaneously frightening and exciting. The Gophers return almost everybody important, which bodes well for continuity. And from what we’ve seen, most guys have matured and expanded their game. But that’s the thing about appearances — you can never be quite sure.
Tomorrow will be a small sample size, and many of the takeaways won’t be terribly indicative of what’s to come. Still, I know we’re all curious to see what we’ve got and where we currently stack up against one of the nation’s best. So, as we start thinking about the nationally televised hangar game, there are a handful of things that I know I’ll be watching for.
1. Can DeAndre Mathieu be even better than he was last year?
The dude was on another planet last year en route to being named the team’s MVP. He played out of control at times, but he was never short on the ability to make plays, bring energy and make his teammates better. For the most part, he toed the line of pushing the tempo to the max without spiraling out of control. But is he due for a regression? I don’t expect one, but if there is anyone on the team who could feasibly take a step back, it’s Mathieu; only because he played at a level so extraordinarily above where anyone thought he was capable that it was borderline unbelievable.
2. Can Elliott Eliason find any sort of offensive stroke?
Last year Eliason went from looking like a potential first-team B1G player through the first half of the season to forgetting how to score and fouling his way to bench is essentially every game the rest of the way. Even in the exhibition game against Minnesota-Duluth, he pulled down more than a dozen rebounds, but only converted one basket. Where is the firepower? He a defensive beast and brings an unmatched ability on the defensive side, but I’m still scratching my head about his inability to score. It’s more trend than mirage at this point, but it will be interesting to see if he can actually find (or get close) to the basket against the Cardinals.
3. Is Carlos Morris capable of stepping in and contributing right away?
Richard struck gold with the Drizzle last year, and something tells me he’s onto another diamond in the rough with Squirrel Morris. Granted, it was against a D-II opponent in an exhibition game, but the guy looked silky. He created his own shot, was long enough to be dangerous on defense, and had a sweet jumper. He’s not going to be a replacement for Austin Hollins on defense, but he certainly can be a more dynamic version of him on offense. It’ll be interesting to see what he does against a real opponent when he’s not dropping 20+ points in an fake game.
4. Will Pitino actually give Bakary Konate real minutes?
I guess this is two things in one. First, I’m curious to see if Eliason has figured out how to not send himself to the bench early in games with foul trouble. His kryptonite last year in the latter half of the season was himself, and his inability to no commit dumb mistakes. If he can actually figure out how to stay on the court, then Konate is basically an afterthought. HOWEVER. Konate has been getting rave reviews from Pitino and he saw relatively extended minutes in the exhibition against UMD. Should Eliason continue shooting himself in the foot early on, I’ll be curious to see how early Pitino goes to Konate to get him some work.
5. How big of a leap has Daquein McNeil taken?
If you missed the UMD action, McNeil looked like a completely different player than who we saw last year. He’s confident; he has swagger; he can get to the hoop; he can shoot. He looks like he wants the ball. He and Morris went back and forth in the scoring battle, and it really looks like a win-win situation for the team. At the very least, he looks to be a solid 6th man if he doesn’t win the job outright. Again, it was a single exhibition, so I’m curious to see what he can do against real competition.
6. Will this team actually press effectively?
The press was easily broken last year, and it was easily broken by UMD. And from the sounds of things, it was decimated by Iowa State. So the question remains: will Pitino continue to put the pressure on early, and will it be effective? It appears to be a goal of his, to be a solid pressing team. So, it would follow that his teams and personnel would be equipped to effectively press. We’ll see.