Read my season preview on the key to Minnesota's season (hint: it's rebounding), here.
Preview box here.
For a few weeks now, we’ve talked about Minnesota’s fresh-faced squad. We’ve heard the anecdotes. We learned a little bit about them on media day, more in two exhibition games and even more in their locker room demeanors.
But now, the previous few weeks are mostly meaningless. The Gophers open the 2015-16 season tonight vs. UMKC (8 p.m., Williams Arena), the bright lights heat up and very soon we’ll start to understand just what Minnesota has in its youthful bunch.
In most publications nationally, locally and throughout the Big Ten, the Gophers have been picked near the basement of the league. I can’t predict much differently because of how many questionmarks still remain.
The interesting thing about this year’s team is that it hinges almost totally on unknowns. Besides seniors Joey King and Carlos Morris – I think we know what Minnesota has there, for better or for worse – the Gophers' major players have yet to prove themselves.
There’s Nate Mason, the de facto star. Can the 6-1 guard take the leadership role he needs to, something that seems unnatural for him? Can he avoid a sophomore slump with defenses around college basketball suddenly keying in on him as the No. 1 threat? Can he repeat his ability to lift the team with baskets when it needs it most?
There’s Bakary Konate, the X factor. We haven’t seen him play at all since last season because of a stress fracture in his left foot. Can the 6-11 sophomore center shake that injury off quickly and be the productive big man Minnesota so badly needs? Can he stay out of foul trouble and rebound well enough to keep the Gophers in games? Is all this talk about offseason development for real? He'll need to take a huge leap for Minnesota to be in the discussion.
There are four freshmen, straight out of high school, taking notable roles right away. All of them will have to play and contribute in order for the Gophers to cling to “depth” as a strength, as they have early. How will the youngsters react when faced with more and more talent? Can they grow as the year goes on? How quickly can Ahmad Gilbert adjust? Is Dupree McBrayer as steady as he seems? Can an undersized Kevin Dorsey successfully finish at the rim after using his incredible speed to get there? Will he be a matchup nightmare or be swallowed up by defenses? Will Jordan Murphy, as he’s hinting, be major impact player for this team? Can he lead the rebound-challenged Gophers in rebounding, his most natural quality? Can he be another star and leader for a team that lacks such titles?
There is redshirt junior Charles Buggs, sudden starter, at least to begin the season. After years of talking potential, can he finally seize it? The tools are there – can he focus well enough to harness them? He will need to block shots, rebound better than he ever has, and do a bunch of others things never asked of him with the urgency they will be asked of him now.
There’s Gaston Diedhiou, whose minutes could triple. At the end of last year, many wondered aloud whether he would survive at the Division I level. Now, he’s a critical backup behind another, foul-prone unknown. While still flawed, Diedhiou looked incredibly improved in two exhibition games. But that was then and this is now – the regular season. Make no mistake, Minnesota needs him.
If each of those players can land somewhere on the positive end of the spectrum of possibilities for them – while remaining healthy – heck, the Gophers could surprise anyone. But those are a lot of ifs. If a few of those players land on the other end, the Gophers will have trouble winning more than a handful of games in the league, which is why Minnesota is ranked where it is most places. This year's Gophers are a team of role players -- a gear that needs all of its parts functioning smoothly to be successful.
Coach Richard Pitino kind of summed up some of the positive things he sees on Thursday afternoon, but just like everyone else, put a qualifier at the end.
“I like our versatility,” he said. “Dupree can play multiple positions, he’s probably a little farther ahead than I thought he’d be. Jordan Murphy was a pretty good surprise for us. It’s still very early, you never know when tomorrow hits what might happen. Kevin Dorsey has got great ability, great speed. And Ahmad Gilbert is getting better. I think Bakary’s injury helped Gas, really helped Gas. Because Bakary was out for about five weeks and it forced Gas to develop and that’s been very helpful for him. I think Joey gives us what Joey always gives us. I think Carlos Morris is improving. Nate mason has had a really good preseason.
“It all changes [Friday], obviously, but I’m excited about what this team can become.”
It all changes today, indeed. Whatever happened in the last few weeks is tossed away and everything begins to count. Possibility, at this moment, lies ahead. Expected struggles loom. And starting tonight, we’ll understand a little more about what this team can – or cannot – become.