Gophers plan to keep up in Big Ten

Published 4:05 am Thursday, October 31, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota has a new coach in Richard Pitino, a fresh outlook fueled by a younger man in charge, and a faster style of play.

The question is whether the combination will be enough for the Gophers to keep up in the tough, deep Big Ten.

Gone is the rugged rebounding and experienced leadership of Trevor Mbakwe, as is the superior athleticism of Rodney Williams. Another starter, shooting guard Joe Coleman, transferred to St. Mary’s in California after Pitino took over for Tubby Smith. Only two of the team’s returning players, Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, averaged more than 3 1/2 points per game last season.

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Most analysts, naturally, have predicted Minnesota will finish in the bottom third of the 12-team conference.

“Where publications have put us is out of our hands. We have a lot of new guys. We lost three of our starters. So we don’t deserve to be rated highly,” said Austin Hollins, one of three seniors on the 14-player roster. “We just have to go out there and use it as motivation and play hard.”

Players have been buzzing about the energy the 31-year-old Pitino has brought to the program. Pitino, with the same eastern accent and frank assessment as his famous father, has expressed satisfaction with the way the team has dedicated itself to the conditioning required to run the fast break and full-court pressure.

The backcourt should be strong. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, who are not related, will be joined by Malik Smith, a 3-point shooting specialist who transferred from Florida International for his final year of college so he could continue playing for Pitino. Holdovers Maverick Ahanmisi and Wally Ellenson and newcomers Deandre Mathieu and Daquein McNeil will provide the depth behind them.

Here are five things to know about the Gophers, who open the season on Nov. 8 against Lehigh:

PICKING UP THE PACE: Pitino has installed the same system his father, Rick Pitino, uses at Louisville with a relentless full-court press on defense and a fast-breaking, shooting-happy offense. One of Pitino’s best pitches for his program, he said, is to tell recruits to simply watch a tape of the last national championship game when Louisville beat Michigan in an up-tempo, back-and-forth thriller. He said he believes this team has enough speed and shooting ability to make his system work.

“We’re definitely in great shape,” Andre Hollins said.

THINNED IN THE POST: Junior Elliott Eliason, a borderline 7-footer who showed significant improvement last season, will be the starting center. Mo Walker, who lost about 60 pounds in less than a year so he could stay relevant to the rotation, is also expected to be a contributor in the post. Freshman Charles Buggs, a redshirt last season, is another backup. Joey King, a transfer from Drake, is on track to be the starting power forward.

Pitino said he’s not worried about his big men keeping up with the fast pace.

“They have it easy. They sit in the back and don’t do anything, while everybody else runs around. So I think they’ll be fine, especially with the TV timeouts,” Pitino said.

LOYAL SMITH: The 6-foot-2 Smith didn’t hesitate to follow Pitino here. His experience and outside shot will be important assets.

Smith averaged 14.1 points last season for FIU, setting the program record for 3-pointers made with 96, in 265 attempts.

DIMINUTIVE MATHIEU: The most intriguing addition might be Mathieu, a 5-foot-9 junior point guard from Knoxville, Tenn., who played previously at Central Arizona Community College. Pitino said he thought Mathieu’s quickness was perfect for the front of the press, and he showed off some offensive skill, too, with 26 points in an intrasquad scrimmage two weeks ago.

“Coach Pitino, when he recruited me, told me, ‘We’re going to play fast, and you’re one of the fastest I’ve seen,”’ Mathieu said. “I have to be fast, or I’m going to be in trouble most of the time. The system really fits me because all we’re doing is running and pressing.”

TOUGH TESTS: There are plenty of the usual low-major opponents on the slate of games this year at Williams Arena, which should give the Gophers a better-looking record entering Big Ten play. But they’ll be challenged early with a game against Syracuse in the Maui Invitational on Nov. 25.

They travel to Richmond on Nov. 16 and host Florida State on Dec. 3, two other potentially difficult games. Then there’s a sobering start to the conference season: at home against Michigan. The Gophers avoid trips to Indiana and Illinois on the 18-game Big Ten slate, but they play Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin twice each.