In the last four games, Joey King has hit a new stride on the court.
Minnesota will likely need that trend to continue for at least one more game if its to advance.
The Gophers will likely be without starting center Elliott Eliason in tonight's NIT semifinal vs. Florida State (8 p.m. CT tipoff; ESPN2; 1500-a.m.), which puts the onus on King's shoulders.
Backup center Mo Walker is expected to get the start, but the big man has played more than 28 minutes in a single game just once this year. When he sits, the 6-9 King will be the Gophers sole post presence.
Luckily for Minnesota, King walks into Madison Square Garden playing as well as he has in his career. In the last four games, the forward has totaled 61 points, dating back to a 14-point performance in the Gophers' second round loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament. King had scored in double digits just four other times all season.
A lot of that production has come in pick-and-pop situations. King has found a new shooting touch over the past few weeks, sinking eight three-pointers in the last four games.
"I think it's just a matter of things clicking," Austin Hollins said. "Joey's confidence is at an all-time high right now. He's playing great basketball. He works extremely hard in practice and he deserves it."
King said things are coming more easily than they ever have in college for him.
"It's been a great stetch so far," he said. "I just want to keep playing hard and hopefully we keep winning."
Now, much more will be asked of King tonight. The undersized sophomore will be brushing shoulders with one of the biggest frontcourts in the nation, one accomodating centers Michael Ojo (7-1) and Boris Bojanovski (7-3). Without Eliason, that makes King -- who has blocked nine shots this season -- the last line of defense in the post.
"We don't want Joey at the five, Joey's a little undersized," Hollins said. "But at the same time ... he's a tough kid, so whatever the matchup is, you know he's going to go out there and give it his all."
DeAndre Mathieu said the team focused on physicality drills in Monday's practice at Baruch College in Manhattan.
Pitino has long called King one of the team's hardest and most consistent workers, and one of the most physical as well.
But the size deficit at the 5-spot is hardly the only issue that crops up when Walker sits. With King at the five, the Gophers run short on options at power forward. Charles Buggs is the obvious choice, but he has played more than nine minutes just twice this season and remains very raw. Austin Hollins could also play at the four, giving Minnesota and even smaller look.
Pitino said he hasn't ruled out playing Oto Osenieks, who will forfeit his last year of eligibility next year due to knee issues.
"Oto's career is not done technically," the coach said. "He's been practicing a little bit, he told me yesterday 'Coach if you need me to play, I want to play.' That's not the ideal option either. So it just screws up the frontcourt rotation and then to add on top of it, the tallest team in the county or one of them, so there's just a lot of difficult obstacles for us to overcome."
If the Gophers win on Tuesday, they will advance to the NIT championship game on Thursday, when they would play either SMU or Clemson.