After the Gophers finished off No. 20 Iowa on Tuesday, emerging with the 95-89 victory, Richard Pitino was asked how he could know that redshirt freshman Charles Buggs would go off the way he did.
“I did not know that,” the Minnesota coach said with a laugh. “That was a guess.”
With Gophers forward Oto Osenieks struggling through a left knee injury (the power forward has a cartilage issue from a prior surgery), Pitino already had made the decision to go with Buggs, and five minutes into the game, he subbed him in for Joey King.
What followed next would have been hard to predict.
Despite playing only two-plus minutes through all of the Big Ten schedule up until that point, Buggs — who the university has said is not comfortable speaking to the media — had nothing but confidence.
After missing the first shot he attempted, Buggs got open in the corner, and took the pass from Andre Hollins.
It was only the second three-pointer of his career, but he was only getting started.
In a span of 1:39, he hit two more shots, first a midrange shot, then another three to help keep the Gophers alive with Iowa — up by eight at the time — trying to push the game out of control. And he capped the first-half push, hitting his third three-pointer of the night — it was followed by another trey from Austin Hollins — to put Minnesota up by four. It was their biggest lead at that point and sent a raucous Williams Arena crowd into an absolute frenzy.
“Buggs brought a lot of energy off the bench and that was a huge for us,” Austin Hollins said. “He was a real boost and he knocked down shots and it was great.”
For the Gophers, it was the perfect secret weapon: a long and athletic power forward that is vastly different from the two Iowa had prepare for, Osenieks and King, and an aspect the Hawkeyes almost certainly didn’t have in their scouting report.
Minnesota had struggled to find that offensive spark in its past two games, shooting only 36 percent from the field. But the Buggs show — he would finish with 13 points after getting a key steal and layup in the second half — ignited a multifaceted attack.
It was a glimpse his teammates said they had just started to see behind the scenes.
“The last few practices he’s been knocking it down with guys in his face,” junior point guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “Pick and pops. He’s really good … I think he’ll play a lot more for us.”
Part of what went into the decision to go with Buggs on Tuesday was Osenieks’ injury. The former starting power forward is clearly bothered by his knee and has scored only two points in the past three games. And as the season has gone on, the coach has noticed plenty of growth in Buggs, a player he has described as “raw” since Pitino took the job in April.
“I’ve always said from Day 1 with Charles — he’s got the best potential of anyone on this team,” Pitino said. “He comes to work every single day and he’s just growing, he’s getting better. We all thought ‘Charles is moving along,’ and Oto is going the other way because physically he’s hurting a little.”
Still, Pitino pointed out, Buggs’ development will be a “marathon.” While the coach has said Buggs is the only player in practice who makes the staff stop and say ‘Wow,’ after a ridiculous no-look pass or unexpected play, but also has the capability of making the coaches said ‘Wow,’ with a very different meaning implied.
The coach didn’t play Buggs much in the second half in part because Pitino realized he probably can’t be expected to perform like that for 40 minutes every game.
The coach had just won big at blackjack and wanted to leave the casino with his money.
“He’s just young,” Pitino said “He’s a freshman and every possession is so crucial. It’s going to take time but he showed a lot and he’s got a lot to still learn. We like his potential a lot.”