The first season in Minnesota's new era of basketball ended in an NIT championship and optimistic glances ahead. The Gophers lose four players from the current team (Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi and Malik Smith expiring their eligibility and Oto Osenieks retiring), but keep four starters from the postseason run and get a pile of fresh faces in the fall. What's to look forward to? What needs work? Here are a few of my thoughts on the road ahead.
Five things to be excited about:
1. A new banner: No, it's not of the NCAA variety, but it's still the first notable addition to the rafters (that wasn't later removed) since 1993. That's a positive (wrapped in a negative, but it's still a positive).
2. DeAndre Mathieu: The most pleasant surprise of 2013-14 has one more season in Maroon and Gold, and should only improve next season. If the tiny guard has even a similar curve of growth in his senior season, he could be one of the top floor generals in the league.
3. A big recruiting class: After getting a commitment from Illinois State transfer Zach Lofton, the Gophers have six new faces joining Minnesota in the fall. That equals a lot of new personalities and opportunity, even if Lofton has to sit out one season via NCAA rules. It also means after plenty of turnover before last season, this team will look wildly different than the one Tubby Smith last coached just two years earlier.
4. Richard Pitino's offense in Year 2: After a full year to get settled in, things behind the scenes should be smoother for Pitino heading into his second season at Minnesota. He won't be putting in a new system and he'll only have a handful or two new players, rather than a full team. That comfort level should come through on the court, too. Pitino introduced the Big Ten to a free-flowing and occasionally dynamic offense a year ago. Look for him to build on that growth.
5. Josh Martin antics: Let me fill you in, in case you're not aware. This kid has a personality the size of Europe, and he's going to a blast for fans if he gets any notable playing time whatsoever. He's already talked about salivating over the chance to fly all over the boards and "flex for the camera." Yes, that should help pump a little life into the Barn.
Five areas of improvement:
1. Turnovers: No one is calling ball handling a strength for Minnesota at this point, but it's clear the Gophers improve toward the end of the year. A big part of the problem for most of the season was unforced slip ups. But Minnesota turned over the ball on less than 15 percent of its possessions (18.1 percent was the average on the season) in four of the last seven games. Players attributed that, in part, to Pitino upping the "punishment" for turnovers in practice. Near the end of the year, he simply started sending them to strength coach Shaun Brown after he was done with them. Said Mathieu: "I went once. I wasn't going again."
2. Shooting: In 2012-13, Tubby Smith touted his team at the start of the season as the best shooting squad he'd ever had. It certainly seemed as though those Gophers had the pieces, but it never really played out that way. This year's Minnesota team took a step in makings its deep attack a legitimate threat and improving their consistency throughout the year. The Gophers averaged 35.5 percent of their shots from behind the arc after making 33.7 the year before.
3. Center spot: No one saw this coming, right? I mean, at the start of the year it was nice that Mo Walker had lost all that weight, but considering how little he had actually been on the court in the last three years, the arc of improvement he showed in his offensive post moves was really shocking. On the other end, Elliott Eliason played a critical role defensively. With both bigs in their senior season next year, the center spot has gone from questionmark to one of the team's most notable assets.
4. Power forward: The four-spot was far from perfect this season, but despite looking like a black hole at the start of the year, Oto Osenieks and Joey King were both at least serviceable. Both improved and, despite being very undersized had some very positive moments. King finished the year playing as well as he has in his career.
5. Fouling: For the better part of the year, it was one of the more problematic areas of Minnesota's defense (which has plenty of those). There are still adjustments to be made with the new rules still only a year old, but toward the end of the season, Minnesota managed to avoid so many whistles on the defensive end, and stay out of the Big Ten basement in that regard (the Gophers finished tenth in opponents free throw rate).
Five areas that need work:
1. Defense: Good the offense was so capable last season because without all of that scoring, the Gophers' Big Ten record would have been much uglier. Despite a bit of late-season fluctuation and modest improvement after mostly ditching the ineffective 2-3 zone, Minnesota ended the year ranked dead last in the league in defensive efficiency according to kenpom.com. The Gophers' man-to-man still leaves a lot to be desired, and it still remains to be seen whether Minnesota can effectively press Big Ten offenses. The good news is even modest improvement would seem monumental.
2. Leadership: Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins were the expected leaders by way of talent and seniority a year ago, but neither really have the personality for it. Mathieu proved to be one of the guttiest late-game players on the team, but he can also let frustration overcome him if things aren't going his way. Elliott Eliason has become much more vocal, but Walker's second-half surge kept him on the bench a lot more later in the year. Having a guy to pull the team together when its struggling and hunger to take the big shot cannot be understated. The Gophers are still finding that person.
3. Power forward: Last season went better than expected, but there are still plenty of questionmarks. Osenieks forfeited his final year of eligibility because of knee concerns, leaving King as the only power forward on the roster with notable minutes. Charles Buggs should continue to grow but remains very raw. Getting a commitment from Gaston Diehiou, a talented forward currently playing in the Canary Islands of Spain, was huge, but he will likely come to the Gophers more green than a player reared in the U.S. Working out that rotation will be a bit of a project.
4. Small forward: Austin Hollins' departure leaves a huge hole for Minnesota to fill on both ends of the court. Toward the end of the season, the senior was arguably the team's best offensive spark. And all throughout his four years with the Gophers Hollins quietly solidified his role as the defensive juggernaut. Can Carlos "Squirrel" Morris take over effectively? It's the biggest piece missing from the NIT championship team, but it's a notable one.
5. Finding the killer instinct: Minnesota lost five Big Ten games in which they were within four points or fewer at the end of regulation. Had they turned the fate of just a couple of those, the Gophers almost surely would have made the NCAA tournament. Rooted in a conference where the competition isn't going to get any less stiff year to year, Minnesota has got to find a way to win the close ones.
1. Nate Mason will quickly become an effective sixth man.
2. Mo Walker will start.
3. The Gophers will win nine league games and slip into the NCAA tournament.
4. The power forward spot will be a revolving door.
5. Mathieu will receive All-Big Ten honors.