Last Season – While Minnesota didn’t receive quite the level of hype our last program under the microscope Nebraska did, there was a feeling that Richard Pitino’s bunch could be NCAA bid worthy coming off an NIT title and with most of their core back. Yet, things never quite got on track in conference play for the Gophers, as they posted a 6-12 regular season mark and after a 2-7 first half were never seriously in NCAA consideration. As is often the case with decently talented teams which don’t rack up a lot of wins, Minnesota struggled to get the close ones, losing 7 games by 5 points or less (only 2 of their wins came within that margin of difference). Stylistically, it was business as usual for Pitino, as the Gophers attempted to use pressure to turn the tempo up, figuring their athleticism and depth would play well for them over the course of 40 minutes. Minnesota actually did a number of things decently on a statistical basis. They were a good shooting team (46/38%) and had a significant turnover advantage of close to 5 per game. Yet, the record was what it was.

Minnesota loses a number of guys who played roles in their rotation. The biggest departures were guard Andre Hollins and center Maurice Walker, who were their top two scorers. They’ll also lose DeAndre Mathieu who played a little bit of a reduced role compared to his first year in Minneapolis but still scored 8.6 ppg and 28 mpg. Elliot Eliason is another loss but his minutes dropped precipetously as the year progressed, so by the end he wasn’t playing anything beyond spot minutes anyway, thus he may not be a major loss from their rotation in the end.

Pitino is entering year three of his tenure. At some point soon, you’d suspect he’ll need to actually produce an NCAA Tournament team. Potential, program building, etc. is all fine but the reality is that he was not left with a serious rebuilding job. Tubby Smith took his last team to the NCAA Tournament and left several players from that group for not only Pitino’s first year but this past one as well. Now it’s essentially Pitino’s show…the pressure to produce has to be on at this stage.

RETURNING PLAYERS

Carlos Morris is a 6’5″ senior guard who had a nice debut season in Minneapolis. He averaged 11.1 ppg as a nice, versatile offensive player. He shot well overall and from three (45/36%), can get to the rim and finish at times and uses his athleticism well. At times, I’d question his shot selection but he’s also the kind of player who’s only going to be at his best in an attacking mode and I’d guess that’s the way Pitino wants him playing. He’ll be a key part of Minnesota’s team next season, no question, as he looks to build on his debut.

Nate Mason quietly had a very strong freshman season, having the misfortune to debut in a year where there were several loud performances from other first year guys around the league. In fact, Mason was so effective that he cut into Mathieu’s minutes and role to some degree, proving to be an effective point guard option. He was a better shooter than the veteran (hit 41/39% last year) and was also a solid decision maker (closing in on a 3:1 assist to TO ratio). He was also second on Minnesota’s team in steals with 59 on the year. In short, he’s a complete sort of point guard. With Pitino bringing in two highly regarded points for next season it remains to be seen whether Mason remains on the ball or moves off it, but either way Minnesota will welcome his shooting ability, defense and court vision. I think he could be one of the better two way guards in the league next season.

Joey King is a 6’9″ senior forward who’s primary role is as a perimeter shooter/stretch 4. King does well in that area of the game, hitting 41% from three and with well over half of his total attempts from the floor coming outside the arc, it’s the main focus for him on offense. He’s got enough length to at least put up some resistance inside on defense but he’s not really a strong defender. King started every game last season and may well do so again for this team but to me, he’s a giveth/taketh away type of player. He gives you a great ability to stretch the floor and make teams pay for not matching up with him or over compensate as a result of trying to do so (see end of game against Michigan State in regulation as one very familiar example) but he just doesn’t give you much of anything at the other end and he’s not a good rebounder (3 per game in 29 mpg). I think on a better, deeper team, he’d have an 18-20 mpg role but on this one, he may need to once again play more than that.

Charles Buggs is an athletic 6’8″ junior forward who finally stayed healthy enough to contribute. He even started 9 games last season. Buggs has some face the basket game to him but primarily he’s an energy guy off the bench. He played 13 mpg last season and I’d see a roughly similar role for him this year, as he may not have enough offensive game in the halfcourt to merit larger minutes. Still, Pitino loves him some athletes with size and Buggs fits that bill.

Bakary Konate is a 6’11” 230lbs sophomore center who saw his role increase as the year went along, to the point that he essentially took away most of Eliason’s minutes by the end. For Konate, it’s a race to see how quickly he can pick up the nuances of the game and develop enough to be more than just a physical presence and contributor on that basis. He’s plenty big and yet moves well enough to be a perfect fit as a big man who can play in Pitino’s uptempo system. They think he can be a shotblocking presence and a rim runner and he’s already shown an ability to play within himself by shooting 55% from the floor as a first year player. He averaged 2.2 ppg and 2.1 rpg but I could see those numbers tripling or even quadrupling pretty easily, depending upon the strides he makes over the offseason. He is a classic example of the kind of guy Pitino’s father has had great success with at Louisville…size and athleticism in a raw talent which needs to be refined a bit.

Gaston Diedhiou is a 6’9″ 230lbs sophomore who became eligible in late December and, like Konate, saw his role expand as the seasone went on. He’s got a similar profile to Konate except they think he might need a little more time before he’s truly ready to impact in a major way. I’d expect him to have a chance to earn rotation minutes next season but with King and Buggs still around, he’s probably a year away from a chance at more than spot duty. Still, same profile as Konate…size and athleticism with a raw skill set.