(Click here for information about how to watch the Gophers-Lehigh game on ESPN3)
It started about five minutes into the second half of Monday night’s Gophers exhibition basketball game.
All of a sudden, Concordia (St. Paul) began to hit a wall. Fouls and turnovers came in bunches. Shots rimmed out, both from the field and the free-throw line, as sweat dripped over the players’ eyebrows and off their chins. The Golden Bears watched, seemingly exhausted, as the Gophers finished on a 42-15 run to win by more than 30.
That, the Gophers hope, will be Pitino Ball.
As Minnesota heads into the season opener of a new era on Friday — against Lehigh at Williams Arena — the main tenet of Richard Pitino’s coaching dogma is clear:
Burn. Them. Out.
“We want to be one of the hardest-working teams in the country,” guard Andre Hollins said.
The Gophers, predicted to finish ninth in the Big Ten, will need to be.
Inheriting a team firmly in transition after the departures of Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams, Pitino hired a veteran strength and conditioning coach in Shaun Brown and focused his squad on getting into shape. Big man Mo Walker has gotten the most attention, having lost a stunning 60 pounds to become a relevant piece. But he’s hardly the only transformation. Fellow center Elliott Eliason lost 20 pounds to help bolster a frontcourt deemed the squad’s weakness. Scrawny redshirt freshman Charles Buggs gained 20. Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins — still the team’s emotional and on-court leaders — each packed on a few pounds of muscle, and forward Oto Osenieks added 15 pounds of it. Even walk-on Kendall Shell dropped about 30 pounds, with Pitino calling him the most improved of all.
The fitness is critical, with the Gophers aiming to embody an up-tempo style and pressure the opponent defensively for nearly 40 minutes. The vast improvement in conditioning is just another distinction from the unfulfilled promises of former coach Tubby Smith, who always declared his teams would run but never quite managed to get them to do that in the grinding, unforgiving Big Ten.
This year’s Gophers will attempt to grab that identity and push it to its capacity, giving them a fighting chance — they hope — against a conference full of talented teams.
In Monday’s exhibition, Pitino saw growth, and that first moment when his philosophy clicked with his players, in real time.
“We just kept wearing them down, wearing them down,” he said. “Hopefully conditioning comes into play, hopefully a deep bench comes into play … I think the way our style can affect a game. I think they saw that [against Concordia (St. Paul)].”
The task will be imminently more difficult once the tougher competition begins. Next week, the Gophers head to Richmond to face a better Spiders team. The Maui Invitational, with an initial matchup against No. 8 Syracuse, is less than a month away. Then comes the Big Ten, the perennial power conference containing three top-15 squads.
The Gophers would bring a distinct look to the league, if they can maintain their approach. While the Big Ten has shed its plodding, half-court reputation — with several teams running regularly — no team pressures the way Minnesota wants to.
“It would be unique to have somebody in the league that lives and dies off a press,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “It’s certainly exciting.”
That same sentiment has aided in the players getting quickly dedicated to the new style.
“It’s fun,” Pitino said. “A normal game may have 60-62 possessions, we’re going to get to 69, 71. What does that mean? That means more shot opportunities for you, more assist opportunities for you, more steal opportunities for you. If you’re a guy that doesn’t play a lot, listen — you keep working and you’re going to get in the rotation. And again, I believe in the style of play, and it’s been proven to win.”
Minnesota quickly grasped the offense — built mostly on the pick-and-roll — but the defense has been tougher to pick up. The press requires constant focus — especially now that the NCAA has created a host of new touch fouls — and complex traps. Any lapse could result in opponents finding gaps and getting the ball to an open man.
“We’re getting really close,” Eliason said this week. “I think once we get that down for the full 40 minutes — we have it now in spurts — I think we’ll be really tough.”
With the team, the energy and dedication already shows. With Pitino, the passion is evident. Whether the Gophers can transform Pitino Ball into overachievement in a nightmare conference can only play out on the court.