Read my game story from Monday night here.
Forget, for a minute, where the Gophers are ranked in the Big Ten.
As coach Richard Pitino noted last night, Minnesota doesn't deserve to be highly ranked -- they haven't proven anything yet.
If the Gophers are able to overachieve, it will be within that context -- that the team is in transition and is expected to land somewhere near the bottom of the Big Ten.
Whether Minnesota can do that -- whether the Gophers have the ability to surprise -- rests on the shoulders of the frontcourt, and it's ability to progress.
Last night, the corps of forwards showed promise there, showed hints of notable improvement, with Minnesota displaying an increased focus in getting the bigs touches in the paint. There is much to learn about this group before the conference slate begins in January. In that time, an aspect about the Gophers' future could be determined:
If the frontcourt can overachieve, maybe this team can.
"Everybody thinks what we do is very guard oriented and I love great guards, but you’ve got to play inside-out," Pitino said. "It’s extremely important to establish throwing the ball into the post whether it’s the four or the five as much as possible and I think we’ve done a good job of that the first two games."
It's no secret that the frontcourt is not Minnesota's strong suit. To start off, it's very thin, consisting only of Walker, Elliott Eliason, Joey King and Oto Osenieks (Charles Buggs is still too raw to be a candidate for serious playing time). Secondly, it's highly inexperienced. Eliason is the only player that logged more than eight minutes a game in the Big Ten slate. King, obviously, was at Drake a year ago, competing in a very different Missouri Valley Conference. Walker played just 6.6 minutes a game all year and Osenieks -- who averaged 9.1 minutes through the season -- played just eight minutes a game against Big Ten foes.
Otherwise, the Gophers have a strong backcourt with Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins returning as its roots, and new JUCO point guard Deandre Mathieu impressing with his speed and ability to score in transition. They have an interesting new system that could push some conference teams out of their comfort zone, and an energetic new coach that seems to be getting the most out of his players already.
But it's hard to win in the Big Ten without a very sound frontcourt.
On Monday, there were plenty of signs of life. Walker had what would have been a career game had it counted toward official stats. Joey King looked versatile, grabbing five rebounds and nine points, while also getting three steals and hitting a three-pointer. Eliason had a modest game with eight points and three rebounds, but Osenieks looked much improved as well, accumulating ten points, six rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal.
The Gophers will need that kind of balance heading into the season, with all four expected to get major minutes in Pitino's exhaustive system.
The coach said he didn't yet know who he will start in the frontcourt but added with the power forward spot that "I don't think it matters" and reiterated that he plans to use Eliason and Walker as a "two-headed monster" -- rotating them regularly in the post.
"I think it's going to be pretty back-and-forth with those guys all year," Pitino said.