Discussion of the Gophers' power forward situation has not been without fuel this season.
With the center spot looking much better than expected, the 4-men are getting the majority of the scrutiny, and take much of the blame for why the Gophers aren't a better team. Some of that is fair.
But within that context there is a notable bright spot, and one which should be acknowledged:
Oto Osenieks has improved substantially.
A year ago, the stretch 4-man played very sparingly in former coach Tubby Smith's system. He often looked lost on offense, and he managed to make just two of 26 three-point attempts, despite being lauded as a shooter when he came to Minnesota.
This year, it's a different story -- Osenieks has held the starting position all season, and is playing with a new confidence we didn't see at all last year. He's averaging seven points and 3.3 rebounds a game, and has made himself into a productive member of the lineup.
The difference in his body language on the court is visible. He's no longer playing scared; he has more faith in his ability.
"It's always been fun to play for the Gophers because of the crowd and the environment," Osenieks said. "But personally, I feel more loose and more free on the team, so it's more fun."
All year, fans have gone back and forth about whether platoon Joey King should in fact be in the starting five in his place, but in the last few weeks -- maybe with the exception of Sunday at Nebraska -- Osenieks has shown its his spot to lose. He plays the better defense of the two, is an apt passer, has become more involved offensively and has shown he can finish tough shots. He was a big part of helping the Gophers shut down Wisconsin, out-hustling Sam Dekker at times in that game.
Coach Richard Pitino likes Osenieks' ability to step out for the three-point shot, and appreciates the consistency the forward has given the Gophers, scoring eight points or more in five of the eight league games. He hasn't faded from the start of the season, the way he's done in years past.
"He's shown up, made big shots in big games," Pitino said. "He just needs confidence. I think he's playing with that and he showed the ability that he can really help us a lot. I think he's gotten a lot better."
Yes, you say, but why isn't Osenieks getting more rebounds? Why can't he post up his man and give the Gophers more of an inside presence?
That's not what he is. And expecting Osenieks to become something he's not is unrealistic.
No, Osenieks is not the ideal big, bruising rebound monster that every Big Ten team desires -- the Gophers don't have that on their roster. Call that a recruiting foil of Smith (probably the most deserving of the blame in that area -- what was his plan, exactly, for power forward?) or call it bad luck for the waiver of FIU transfer Rakeem Buckles not getting approved by the NCAA.
Either way, this is what you have. Osenieks isn't the most talented power forward around, but he has grown tremendously and is working his butt off. Isn't that all you can ask? Credit Pitino for getting the most out of his starting power forward, and Osenieks putting in the time to get better. In a year where the Gophers are trying to make it work and scrap it out at that position, that can only be viewed as a win.
It's not just things on the court that are going well for Osenieks right now. Last week, the forward shared with us the story of how he proposed to his now-fiancee over Christmas. The two were at her parents' house, and he set up a giant teddy bear with candy on its lap and Jordans on its feet. When he presented the gift, she took off the shoes to try to put them on but couldn't -- there was a ring hidden in one of them. When she pulled it out, he proposed, and she said yes.
That happiness off the court has only helped feed into success on the court, he said.
"If you're happy and positive, then I think it will translate to on the court, help you play better and vise versa, off the court, with life," he said. "It's going in a good direction. I'm happy, you know. Life off the court is going good and on the court is going good too."