With 13 minutes left in the first half Saturday, Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino inserted three freshmen — Nate Mason, Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou — into the game at the same time.
The two international big men are more raw than oysters as basketball players, and Mason began the game on the bench after losing his starting job.
Their one stint together didn’t last very long.
Pitino replaced Diedhiou before he even broke a sweat and Konate joined him on the bench shortly thereafter.
“Are you implying I give the hook to the players?” Pitino joked.
Well, um, yes. But giving those players experience absolutely remains the right call. That’s the reality for a team that dug a 1-6 hole to start the Big Ten season.
Pitino continued to walk that fine line between trying to win now while preparing for the future Saturday at Williams Arena. For one afternoon, he got the best of both worlds.
The Gophers used a spirited second-half push to defeat Illinois 79-71, and Pitino gave his youngsters more experience with an eye on next season and beyond.
“You’ve got to let them develop,” Pitino said.
The young coach finds himself in a weird spot. The Gophers entered the weekend in 13th place in the Big Ten. Their season to date has been a disappointment. Nobody expected them to be in this position.
As such, the focus pivoted from “win now’’ to “win now but also get the young guys some playing time.’’ That’s not an easy predicament for a coach who still needs to believe in his team while also dealing with the reality of his situation and his roster.
The Gophers don’t have many proven commodities coming back next season — particularly in the post — so Pitino needs to get his inexperienced players on-the-job training.
That means more playing time for Konate and Diedhiou and Charles Buggs, even if the results make Pitino cover his eyes in horror. And keep putting the ball in Mason’s hands in pressure spots at the end of close games because he’s the future and those moments will prove invaluable.
This seems like a learning process for Pitino, too. He’s only 32 years old coaching in a power conference. His team has struggled and lost some close games. That has forced him to tinker with his lineup and rotations in search of something that works.
“The Michigan game to me, we were making these ridiculous mistakes,” he said. “I thought guys needed to pay the price for those mistakes.”
Mason replaced senior DeAndre Mathieu as the starting point guard for three games, though Pitino has rethought that decision.
Pitino elevated his two freshmen big men ahead of senior Elliott Eliason, though that also might change after Pitino cringed through Diedhiou’s one minute of action Saturday.
“Gas just is not ready yet,” he said. “I’m telling him to get [into a zone] and he’s in a man. It’s just ridiculous. It’s going to give me a heart attack.”
Konate has a better understanding of the game, but he still has miles to go before he can be considered reliable. He plays hard and fights for position in the post. But he gets lost on defense and plays with a herky-jerky movement that suggests he’s not comfortable yet.
Illinois grabbed three offensive rebounds during Konate’s first stint. As Konate secured a loose ball and looked for an outlet on one possession, Pitino reacted like a parent who noticed his infant reaching for an electrical outlet. He wanted to get him away from danger as quickly as possible.
“He’s going to be a good player, but he just fouls everybody,” Pitino said. “And he just looks at the ref. He’s fouling!”
Konate picked up three fouls in 10 minutes, but he also had a few nice moments in the second half. He made a 15-foot jumper and grabbed a couple of rebounds.
Buggs also made a contribution after Pitino gave him a quick hook in the first half, as well. Buggs provided a dunk and some energy during the decisive run.
Pitino mentioned Buggs’ daily approach to being a player at this level as the thing standing in his way. In other words, it’s not so much talent as it is him showing consistent effort and focus.
The Gophers have to figure this stuff out now before next season. Their youngsters are so raw that they need this experience. They have to find out what they have in these guys.
Winning games remains the focus, but at this point, it would be shortsighted to sacrifice a chance to develop the future, too.