It should be a natural expectation that college basketball players will improve over the course of their careers. They arrive on campus with acclaim, but also as 18-year-olds. They grow. They mature. They learn new skills and fill bigger roles. They should get better. It only makes sense.
But that didn't happen very often when Tubby Smith was the Gophers' head coach. Talented players would seem to stall (Ralph Sampson III), improve marginally (Rodney Williams) or transfer before we got to see them blossom (a few examples, unfortunately). Andre Hollins blossomed between his freshman and sophomore year under Smith, but he was already gifted with plenty of talent. What really stands out is when a marginal or role player suddenly becomes functional. We don't recall that happening.
We do, however, see it happening in multiple instances with the Gophers this year under Richard Pitino. While Hollins Squared is still a major focal point of the offense -- and both players are exceeding their scoring averages of a year ago -- the surrounding pieces are the reason this team defeated Ohio State last night and now seems like a real threat to make the NCAA tournament in March.
Elliott Eliason, in both demeanor and performance, is like night and day between his sophomore season under Smith and his junior year under Pitino. Whatever buttons he is pushing are the right ones. Same goes with Oto Osenieks, an afterthought on last year's team who is now a starter and very useful player in Pitino's system. Mo Walker famously shed a ton of weight and perhaps provided the biggest stretch of play last night for the Gophers, converting back-to-back buckets down low in the second half while getting fouled both times. He made one of the free throws, turning a 39-38 deficit into a 43-39 lead. The Gophers never trailed again.
Whether we can attribute this to coaching, natural progression or a little of both is debatable. But it sure seems like we're seeing far more dramatic player development under Pitino.