You may not know it this year but I am a hoops guy. I would rather spend an evening at The Barn watching Gopher hoops than I would watching Gopher Football at TCF or the Vikings in the Dome, Gopher Hoops is my passion. So how do I reconcile the fact that I have largely ignored all things Gopher Basketball as we are just hours away from tipping off the season? Well, I can't and I apologize for not peppering you with previews and predictions for the new season and the new era of Gopher Hoops. My excuse is that when the football team is on a roll and there is some excitement around that program in November, we kind of have to take advantage of that. So blame Jerry Kill and his audacity to have a 3-game win streak in late October; previous coaches were kind enough to be winding down their seasons by now.
To start with, I am very excited about the new Pitino era. I was in Atlanta for the Final Four, just days after Richard was hired. I talked with dozens of Louisville fans, all of them believe that this is just a quick stop for Richard before his dad retires from Louisville and he takes over. My thought is that for that to happen, Richard is going to have to have some success here at Minnesota first. If he can get this program into the top tier of the Big Ten for a couple seasons in a row, it will be that much easier for the next guy to carry on. If he is the heir to the Cardinal's thrown, he is going to have to accomplish "something" here first. We can deal with the aftermath later.
If I were to give another excuse as to why there have been no actual previews before today, it is that it is really hard to preview this team as there are so many unknowns. The new system, several new players and adapting to a new coaching staff means that it is really hard to gauge what to expect this season. When it comes to football, I'm much more comfortable making things up in my previews (did I just type that?), but when it comes to basketball I want to put my collegiate coaching experience to good use and pretend like I actually know what I'm talking about. Instead of the traditional positional previews, schedule breakdown, system analysis, etc; I'm going to tell you a few things I think I know about this season, a few things I am completely unsure about and then I'll make a few predictions. This will serve as your 2013-14 Gopher Basketball Preview.
Things I Think I Know
Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins are going to be very good and will be the heart and soul of the team. Pitino's systems is guard oriented. It allows for guards to score both with the dribble-drive and shooting a lot of threes. In addition to being key cogs in the offense, the constant pressing and pressure defense is also a necessity. This system is great for both of our Hollins brothers (not really related). Andre is going to thrive in this offense both off the bounce and riding hot nights from behind the arc. Austin is going to be the beneficiary of kick-out threes, which he is fond of knocking down. Defensively I expect that Austin is going to have a lot of steals in the press, utilizing his length and defensive anticipation. These guys are going to have great seasons, this might be the thing I am most confident about.
I'm actually fairly confident in Maurice Walker and Eliott Eliason having good seasons. I know that the frontcourt is a major (MAJOR) question mark this year but I think things are shaping up nicely for both of these guys. I expect to see both of them active in the offense and capable of contributing by hitting short jumpers from the paint and the short-corner along the baseline. Mo is a pretty skilled big-man. You may recall his freshman year (before the knee injury and before ballooning) he was a nifty passer and a good shooter. Now that he is nimble and more agile, I think we'll get to see that on display again. Eliason will be your starting center, he will be a solid defender and is pretty tough inside. I think he is capable of hitting 6-foot jumpers and we absolutely will need him to be a solid rebounder.
Deandre Mathieu is going to be outstanding on some nights and infuriating others. This kid is quick, lightening quick and he is very good at getting deep into the paint where I think he can actually score amongst the trees. He is like a downhill skier in that he is always right on the edge of being in control at very high speeds but dangerously close to wiping out and tumbling down the hill. His 26 points in the public scrimmage came against Mav, Andre and Austin and he was fairly impressive. He will have big nights where opposing guards have no shot of containing him. Other nights he'll have seven or eight turnovers, get blocked about four times and shoot 3/11. I guarantee he'll be a lot of fun to watch.
Daquein McNeil will redshirt. After watching him in the scrimmage and seeing how much playing time the rest of our backcourt is going to get, I'd be shocked if he doesn't redshirt. He made a couple tough plays inside during the scrimmage but not enough to warrant minutes over Hollins, Hollins, Smith, Mathieu or Mav. Not a key cog to this season, but one of the things I am certain of.
I expect almost no contribution from Charles Buggs. Pitino made reference to Buggs earlier this year as a guy who sometimes plays like he has the talent to be drafted and other times he isn't good enough to earn minutes. I expect we'll see the latter. Maybe he'll develop into a valuable contributor but it won't be this year.
Maverick Ahanmisi will be a solid shooter and probably the 9th man in the rotation. At times I was starting to think that he may start or at least be one of the first guys off the bench, but I think Mathieu's emergence will keep Mav's minutes down. The senior won't turn the ball over, is a decent defender and will have more opportunities to make threes this year. His minutes will go up to about 14 or 15 per game (up from 10 last year).
This team will be a lot of fun to watch...eventually. I don't think we should expect a well-oiled machine in November of the first season. And it may not be all that pretty in the Big Ten season as well. I am convinced that we have a very good backcourt that can score in the Big Ten. But our frontcourt is going to be a problem. It isn't just that we have a few questions about interior defense and rebounding, but I'm not sure there are any potential answers. I am looking forward to an offense that will play fast, make shots and a defense that will force turnovers and be one of the best full-court defending teams in the conference. It is when the opponent gets into the half-court where I will be nervous.
Things I Wish I Knew
Joey King and Oto Osenieks, what are we going to get out of these guys. It looks like one of these guys will be starting at the 4, but this makes me very nervous. Osenieks is known in practice as a great shooter, this could make him a valuable weapon in this offense. But the fact is he is a 19.4% shooter from behind the arc in his career. When the game is moving faster he has not been able to maintain what is supposedly a lethal stroke. If he is not contributing from behind the arc then we need him to be rebounding and defending; neither of which has exactly been a strength of his through his first two seasons. Maybe the new system works for him, maybe not. This is a big unknown.
And things don't get any clearer for Joey King. The Drake transfer was a Missouri Valley All-Freshman last year. He scored nearly 7 points per game in 19 minutes and made 33 threes on the season (34%). But the Big Ten is faster and much more physical. Will he be able to hit open shots? Will he be able to contribute to rebounding (more than the 2.9 per game he gave last year)? Will he be able to defend Big Ten power forwards? I wish I knew.
Is Wally Ellenson going to take steps forward and be a contributing member of the team? I'm confident he'll be in the 10-man rotation but most likely as the 9th or 10th guy. At times during the scrimmage he was offensively assertive and showed good defensive anticipation on the press. I think he is more confident this year and will have some good games (10-12 points, 3 steals and 4 rebounds). But he could be an exciting player. I have visions of him jumping a pass in the full-court and finishing with a dunk where he hangs in the air for what seems like 8 seconds.
Finally I get to Malik Smith, the FIU transfer shooting guard. This guy will shoot a lot of threes and have some games where he makes a huge impact. But after watching him in the scrimmage (where he missed a LOT Of threes) I'm not convinced he has that smooth, shooter's-stroke that will lead to consistent shooting night in and night out. Smith might be a key leader on the team who makes a difference, or he will be inconsistent who isn't afraid to keep chucking it up when the shots are not falling. Defensively I have no idea what we will get out of Smith.
This should almost be in the Things I Wish I Knew section. When I look at our backcourt and project how good I think Hollins and Hollins will be along with what I think is going to be a breakout year for Mathieu, I think that this team might be an NCAA Tournament team again. But frontcourt just has so many questions. I think Eliason and Walker will have decent seasons but we lost over 50% of our rebounding from a year ago. That is a lot to replace and I'm not all that confident in the replacements.
I am fully excited for the new Pitino era. It tips off tonight!