Gophers pregame: Osenieks made emotional decision to end career
- Blog Post by: Amelia Rayno
- March 9, 2014 - 2:32 PM
At first, Richard Pitino didn't think it was a big deal.
So when he saw Oto Osenieks nearly in tears after the Iowa game, he was a little taken aback.
His forward had been complaining about pain in his left knee for weeks, but the coach thought it was something that could go away with rest.
Ultimately, Osenieks and the doctors decided it wouldn't -- and continuing to play on it wasn't worth the risk of worsening his joint for the future.
Years ago, Osenieks had two surgeries on the knee back in Latvia, from where he hails. Over time, the cartilage has worn away, creating a constant grinding with movement.
"He's just been hobbling," Pitino said. "It's just that bone-on-bone, it's never really going to heal."
Finally, Osenieks, who turns 24 in 10 days, came to the coach and told him he wasn't sure if he could do it any longer. Pitino said it was an emotional process for the player.
"All kidding aside, you go out for a run when you get older and it's harder to do," Pitino said. "And I think he feels that a little bit. He wants to help the team as much as possible. But really, it was his decision, it wasn't our doing at all. He was the one who kind of came to us."
Next year, Osenieks -- who is on track to graduate this semester but who had one year of eligibility remainint -- will stay on with the team as a grad assistant. Osenieks has been interested in coaching, something Pitino jokes could change after one year with him.
Because of the timing of the announcement, Osenieks will be honored at Senior Night today, along with Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi and Malik Smith.
Other notes on the seniors:
*Austin Hollins will tie the record for most games played (134) in Maroon and Gold when he steps on the court today, for Senior Night. Rodney Williams previously held the record.
"I think it just shows you that he's had an impact early on in his career," Pitino said of Hollins, who he called 'a coach's dream.' "When guys do that it means that they've been somewhat of an impact player as a freshman, which is huge. You look at Elliott and Mo, they're playing well this year but they didn't have a lot of experience early. Well, Austin was thrown in there, he's a 1000-point scorer ... He treats this like a job. And he's very, very professional about his work. Every single day he comes to work, and that's tough as a college student."
*Pitino imagines that when folks in Boston turn on the TV and see Malik Smith on the floor for Minnesota, they smile.
"And probably laugh," he said.
A year ago, Smith joined Pitino at Florida International after two stops at junior colleges. At the end of the year, he wasn't even all-conference in the Sun Belt. Now, he's the sixth man on a borderline NCAA tournament team. The shooting specialist is going through perhaps the biggest slump of his career right now -- he's made just one of his last 19 attempts from three-point range -- but Smith has had a huge impact on the Gophers' early successes. He's been a spark off the bench, and found a knack for hitting clutch shots in big moments.
"If you just look at the body of work, to be able to do what he's done, is pretty impressive," Pitino said. "So it just shows he's come a long, long way."
*It's no secret that Maverick Ahanmisi hasn't played much this year. Once the backup point guard, the combo guard quickly found himself behind new floor general DeAndre Mathieu and shooting guard Smith in the depth chart. His minutes have gone from 10.5 a game last year to eight a game this season.
Those facts make the California native's attitude that much more impressive, Pitino has said repeatedly. And in talking to Ahanmisi, the sentiment seems genuine.
"All four years I've been here I've had fun," he said. "So no matter if I'm hurt or if I'm playing or I'm not playing, I've enjoyed all my time here."
It's that positivity and concern for the whole that saddens Pitino a little, even as he's constructed the rotation he's felt he can get the most out of. Pitino said he believes that Ahanmisi has potential as a player, but that Smith's arrival and hot start simply cut down his opportunities.
"I'm disappointed that I've not been able to play him more," the coach said. "Just because he's such a good kid, he's got such a good attitude, he's a great teammate. Mav's problem probably has been Malik. With Malik playing as well as he was early ... we just didn't know, really, where to play him. But I think he's a good player. He's an unbelievable kid, an unbelievable teammate."
© 2015 Star Tribune