To say that Oto Osenieks struggled last season is a pretty big understatement.

While the 6-8 Gopher forward’s minutes shrunk by two minutes a game (from 11.1 to 9.1), his shooting ability seemed to disintegrate – a big problem considering he was brought in under the label of “shooting specialist.”

He made just 29.7 percent of his shots from the field. Only 7.7 percent (2 of 26) of his 3-point attempts – a statistic almost hard to fathom – fell in.

When coach Richard Pitino took this job, one of his first questions to Osenieks was whether his nickname was “Oto-matic.”

“Then I looked at his stats,” Pitino joked. “He made two threes [all year].”

But with the first exhibition just a little more than a week away, we’ve gotten a new glimpse of Osenieks -- one that lives up to his nickname a little better -- through two team scrimmages.

In the first, which was not public, Osenieks had nine points and got to the foul line ten times. On Saturday, in the Gophers’ First Look Scrimmage, Osenieks was legitimately impressive, particularly in the first half when he scored 13 of his eventual 16 points. In the process, he added seven rebounds, a major weakness for this team, while holding Joey King to just five points and three rebounds.

What has gotten into him? Well, maybe a good dose of confidence, and just a lot of dedication, coach Richard Pitino suggested afterwards.

“I was really impressed,” Pitino said. “He was fighting for every single rebound. He’s another guy that has really responded to kind of the challenge. And I thought he did a really nice job defensively. Joey King only had 3 rebounds, but that was because Oto was doing a very good job blocking him out. He showed some toughness today, which was really important.”

Later, in breaking down each player’s performance from that scrimmage on his blog, Pitino said it was the best Osenieks has looked as a Gopher.

That is hard to deny.

Of course, the test haven’t truly yet begun, and Osenieks still has plenty to work on. On Saturday, he missed four screens according to Pitino and also had a couple of really ugly turnovers when he was pressured. Maintaining the toughness and energy he exhibited intrasquad will be infinitely more challenging against Big Ten starting lineups.

However, as an early look, Osenieks’ performances so far can only be seen as incredibly encouraging. He was taking good shots; they were falling; he was battling. It’s the kind of surprise that the Gophers will need if they are to overachieve this year. Heading into the start of practice, Osenieks was all but overlooked from a media perspective, even though Minnesota desperately needs his size and has an extreme lack of depth in the frontcourt.

Saturday, he made everyone take a second look, and after significantly outplaying King may have also inserted himself in the starting conversation as well. Is the apparent improvement real or a fleeting streak of luck? Only Osenieks can answer that in the days to come. 

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