Settling on assumptions only four games into the season is a dangerous game to play. With the ebb and flow of teams, in-season player growth and the evolution of a team’s identity, the November Golden Gophers will assuredly look different than the March version.
That said, it’s four games in and we’re already starting to see some patterns, which can answer some initial questions we had about the team. But along with those answers come plenty of questions.
Since we last checked in, the Gophers have faced a mediocre D-II team in Franklin Pierce and a lowly America East team in Maryland-Baltimore County. Not exactly the most thrilling of opponents (you basically had to be near a radio for coverage of the game, which should tell you something), but legitimate, organized competition nonetheless. Against Franklin Pierce, the Gophers just couldn’t be stopped. Not surprising, considering the talent gap on each side, but Minnesota completely mauled the Ravens, scoring at will, shooting almost 60%, forcing 24 TOs and nabbing 15 steals. Further, the starting lineup only committed 5 turnovers all game.
UMBC was a different story. Maybe it was a product of playing three games in five games, but the Gopher squad that came out against the Retrievers was hardly the one that ran up 109 points against Franklin Pierce. Poor shooting was the culprit in a keeping the point total below 70 as the Gophers shot only 40%. Instead, it was the defense that helped blow the game open once again, as an intense press kept UMBC on edge and forced them into 23 turnovers. And despite hot shooting early, they ended up with only a 38% mark by the end of the game. So, unlike Franklin Pierce and Western Kentucky before them, it was the defense doing most of the dirty work to keep a significant lead for the Gophers. Still, as ugly as the beginning of the game was, it’s hard to complain about an 18-point win.
Now the Gophers head to the meat of their non-conference schedule, starting with the NIT Tip-Off, where they’ll face St. John’s on its home court before facing the winner of the Georgia/Gonzaga game. After that, they’ll travel to Winston-Salem to face Wake Forest in the B1G/ACC Challenge. While not quite Louisville, these teams will definitely present a bigger challenge and give Minnesota more of a concrete idea of where they stack up against teams their own size.
So, what can four games tell us? It’s hard to jump to conclusions, but there are a few things that jump out to me:
- Nate Mason is for real
Seriously, you’re telling me this kid is a freshman? In addition to looking like one of the three most poised players on the court, the guy is showing a true knack for hitting the big shot, playing fast and hanging on to the ball. Only a couple times has he actually looked out of control and when he was forced into action on national television in the first game of the season, he delivered.
- Andre Hollins is totally healthy
Thinking back to last year, it’s amazing what a nagging ankle injury can do to a player, and Hollins was definitely slowed by an ailment last year, never fully recovering. This season, it’s like night and day, as he’s a menace on defense and flying around the court. And he’s quietly leading the team in scoring. A totally healthy Hollins is a scary prospect for opponents.
- Deandre Mathieu hasn’t missed a beat
I’ll admit, I was worried that last year was the high-water mark for Mathieu, who slayed dragons and saved princesses last year en route to the team MVP award. How can he top that, I asked myself. Well, it’s probably safe to say that Mathieu is as good as ever, perhaps adding even more speed than last year. With 12 steals through four games and only three TOs since the opening game, I’m looking forward to a season full of DRIIIIIZZZZYYY.
- Mo Walker has completely usurped Elliott Eliason as the starting center
I picked Eliason as the starting center this offseason, mostly because I thought he warranted the start due to seniority and the difference between him and Walker was negligible. I also thought he might have something left in the tank offensively, and could revisit that (now outlying) string of games early last season where he was a world beater in the post. Defensively, he’s as good as ever, but it’s clear he’s made no strides offensively and he hasn’t clocked more than 18 minutes in a game all season. Walker, meanwhile, looks like one of the best offensive centers in the conference and nearly leads the team in scoring.
Of course, four games also opens up a whole new set of questions that I hadn’t thought of before the season started. Consider these as we move into a different level of competition in the next couple weeks:
- Can Carlos Morris improve his shot selection?
JF detailed Morris’ less-than-stellar shot selection in a recent post and it’s true — he’s a chucker. Now, Malik Smith was a Chucker, with a capital C, and in the end it was probably more trouble than it was worth. Morris is a more dynamic player than Smith and brings an additional level of athleticism. Still, he’s playing himself out of the starting SF position with some questionable shots.
- Is this team really going to be awful at free throws all year?
It’s been a pitiful display so far and if the team doesn’t shape up from the line, they could really hurt themselves in close games. They’ve left a stunning 41 points at the line through four games, and have yet to crack 61% in any game.
- Has Daquien McNeil really improved?
We heard all about him all summer and he looked the part in the exhibition against UMD. Still, he hasn’t had a standout performance yet and has been particularly prone to foul trouble already. With Morris loosening the hold on the starting 3-spot, however, his opportunity may soon loom.
- How good will this defense be, really?
Four games in and the Gophers are causing turnovers like it’s their job. In fact, they’ve now forced 23 or more turnovers in three straight games. Granted, the level of opponent will rise dramatically in the coming days, so it will be interesting to see how a team without someone like Montrezl Harrell handles a press that has looked good at times, and completely beatable at others.
- And, of course, will we ever #FreeBuggs?
The jury is still out on Charles Buggs. Does he get the game yet? Can he realize his athletic potential? He has spurts of greatness, but then on the next play he’ll basically trip over his own two feet. However, with Josh Martin light years away from making an impact, Buggs is in position to provide some solid depth behind Joey King if Pitino thinks he warrants it. We just don’t know if or when that will become a reality. He’ll continue to be the most talked about 12th man in the country until then.