Last night in the Gophers season opener against Lehigh, Minnesota's frontcourt did not seem to miss Mo Walker, who was suspended for six games for "violating university policy." In fact, one might say that it thrived, with Elliott Eliason posting the first double-double of his career and transfer Joey King starting off his Gophers tenure with a 20-point game. The Gophers outrebounded the competition and won, heartily.
But what is ahead? How will Walker's suspension affect Minnesota going forward?
Right off the bat, the Gophers face Montana, who has a 7-footer on the roster (in Andy Martin), but one that still isn't getting very many minutes or playing much into the game plan. Otherwise, the Grizzlies have had up-and-down rebounding performances. They grabbed 49 in their exhibition against Simon Frazier, but managed just 26 in their opener against Lewis-Clark State.
Richmond isn't big, but their frontcourt has more experience, with both Alonzo Nelson-Ododa and Trey Davis returning and appearing poised to take the next step.
In general, the Gophers won't really be out-sized terribly as the team's opponents in the next five games are all relatively small. Coastal Carolina has a pair of 6-10 players, but the Chanticleers shouldn't be much of a problem for the Gophers. Wofford doesn't have a single player taller than 6-8. Then comes Syracuse, which has been a good rebounding team in the recent past, but not a great one. Six-nine Rakeem Christmas and 6-8 C.J. fair root the frontcourt and certainly give the Orange more continuity there, if not great size.
Perhaps the game when the Gophers frontcourt will most be tested is the Dec. 3 matchup against Florida State -- which has two guys over seven feet -- and Walker will be back in the fold by then.
Even so, the Gophers' frontcourt is very much scrapped together right now, with new lineups being tested and players being asked for more. The frontcourt was already a source of concern, with a very thin and inexperienced core. Undoubtedly, now more than ever, Minnesota will have to find ways to compensate for their holes in personnel.
Some things we can expect:
More small lineups: Coach Richard Pitino has no choice, after all. Last night, we saw a lot of occasions where King (at center) and Oto Osenieks (at power forward) comprised the frontcourt. "It’s not ideal," Pitino said last night. "But what’s a weakness is also a strength. That’s tough to defend that with two guys that can step out on the perimeter. They’re a little undersized, they’re a little quicker. So we’ve just got to get everybody to believe, listen guys, this is a strength, not a weakness. You’ve just got to continue to hold serve." A four-guard lineup, with Austin Hollins at the power forward, could be used more often as well, particularly since Hollins is rebounding better than King right now.
More pressure on King to rebound: King looked great in a lot of ways last night, and he's been steadily impressing since the first exhibition. It's hard to criticize a guy that scored 20 points in his first game as a Gopher, and has really seemed to improve on his fouling propensity, not fouling at all on Friday. But King's absence on the glass is a big problem for the Gophers, who only have three bodies in the frontcourt. He had only one on Friday. Even averaging just four or five a game would be a big boost from status quo.
Eliason's conditioning will be tested: The center stepped up in a huge way on Friday, pulling down 17 rebounds and adding 11 points. It's probably not realistic to expect that out of Eliason all the time, but he certainly will need to play more minutes with Walker out. He said he feels great after losing 20 pounds and is up for the challenge. But only time will tell. Friday, Eliason only had to play 28 minutes with the Gophers staying two paces ahead of Lehigh. If Minnesota gets into trouble, can he continue to be productive at 32-plus minutes?
A greater emphasis on rebounding by committee: Pitino has been preaching it from the start of practices, but the Gophers still need to commit to the concept on a nightly basis. Austin Hollins really helped out in that regard on Friday, recording seven rebounds of his own. Elsewhere, it was mostly Eliason. No one else had more than three. Assuming that Eliason won't rebound 17 every night, that needs to change, quickly.