The frontcourt has long been considered to be the Gophers' liability. At the start of the year, there simply wasn't enough size, there weren't enough bodies and wasn't enough experience in the group.
All of that will still present big challenges to overcome once the Gophers get into the meatier part of the schedule.
But on Thursday, with the Gophers undermanned in the game before the Maui Invitational, which the team left for today, the Minnesota frontcourt seemed able and eager to pick up the slack.
Eliason effectively played the role of rim protector and flirted with a triple-double, recording 11 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocks (a career high). Osenieks had 14 points and five rebounds (12 points and five rebounds in the first half, before getting into foul trouble). Both moved well with and without the ball and had good defensive positioning, despite that Osenieks had never played center before (and only had one day to learn the position in practice).
The rest of the frontcourt was in street clothes. Joey King sat out because of a fractured jaw sustained in Tuesday's game, and Mo Walker served the fifth game of a six-game suspension for violating university policy.
Afterward, coach Richard Pitino gushed a little.
"Oto and Elliott were tremendous," he said. "Elliott, certainly, almost getting a triple-double. He continues to grow, continues to get better. When you’re playing without two guys who play significant minutes, [that's impressive]. And then Oto was very good offensively. I just love the confidence that he’s playing with right now. I keep telling him don’t worry about anything just play aggressively. He’s showing that. To do that without two guys that are going to play major, major minutes and do it with all the type of odd lineups that we played with tonight -- I mean, Oto played the five, and that’s tough to do because he never practices at the five. It’s not like we had three days to prepare. We only had one day to prepare. That shows his basketball IQ."
To be clear, Wofford was not a very good team and didn't pose nearly as big a threat as some of the games Minnesota has already played this season. But getting players to dominate against bad teams isn't always a given -- look through the box scores of the last couple of seasons, when even the Gophers' best players were often up and down through the non-conference schedule.
The Gophers' frontcourt still is lacking girth and experience, areas that will likely be exploited down the road. But what Pitino and the rest of the Minnesota staff should be credited for is the way they've gotten their players to perform early on. The coaches embraced what they had and have absolutely gotten the most out of it so far. To the players' credit, they've bought into the system and the game plan completely, and done the work to improve.
When the players talk about Pitino, it explains some of the impact. Osenieks has expressed how much more comfortable he feels this year after the coaching change, and last night, Eliason explained just how much he enjoys the new system.
"When we first started scrimmaging each other, you kind of got the feeling, ‘Man, this is pretty cool,'" Eliason said. "When I first came in, I wasn’t sure how it was going to be but the more I learned, the more I talked to coach Pitino, the more we played, I thought, wow, this is a great style for me. I’m going to get out in run, especially if I get into shape, lose a little weight. Once you buy into the system you really appreciate it a little more, have a little fun, and I’m having a blast."
Both of those sentiments, from Osenieks and Eliason, are showing on the court. The pair took their jobs seriously and played with great energy and intensity. In the past couple of weeks, the two frontcourt players seem to have grown tremendously and are exuding confidence on the court -- they look like different players from the ones we saw a year ago. Give the players the credit for doing the work, and the coaches the credit for connecting in a very effective way.
Other notes and quotes:
- Pitino on Osenieks' recent surge after struggling all of last season: "Every situation is so different. Some guys just need a fresh start. Maybe that was the case with Oto."
- Osenieks said last night was the most comfortable he's even been on the court in college. But after getting three fouls in the first half, the forward didn't play much in the second, and when he did his production dropped off. "It kind of got me out of rhythm, it was hard to get back in," Osenieks said. "But I have to be much smarter in the future. It was a good learning experience. I can’t foul."
- Austin Hollins on Eliason: "Elliott played great, he played his butt off. That’s what we need. We were missing our backup center and our third-string center, in Joey, so Elliott really picked up their slack and he helped us out tonight. He played with a lot of energy."
- Eliason on blocking seven shots on Thursday: "They just kept coming in. It’s my job to protect the rim off the break so that’s what I did. It just happened that way ... It’s timing. Knowing when to wall guys, knowing when to jump, and not get fouled because that’s the way you get out of the game quick."
- In the last two games, Eliason has played 34 and 31 minutes. That he's been able to play such long stretches with such effectiveness and intensity has impressed even himself. "I knew I was in good shape, with [strength and conditioning] coach [Shaun] Brown, but I didn’t know I was in that good of shape," Eliason said. "To be able to keep that tempo up is awesome, it’s great for the confidence."
- Walker will sit out for Monday's game against Syracuse in the first round of the Maui Invitational, his final game of his six-game suspension. King will be evaluated in practice on Saturday to determine whether he is healthy to play, Pitino said. "Those guys are great players, big bodies too," Eliason said. "When you’re playing aginst teams like Syracuse and the other teams in Maui, and especially when we come back and start playing Big Ten games, you’ve got to have those guys to survive."