Those who watched saw an unfair fight. A Division II team was forced to play a Division I foe in a loud road arena, and the battle on the boards was as uneven as the raised court to the arena floor.
But Southwest Minnesota State, the D-II squad, was the team crushing the Gophers in rebounding and ultimately won the battle of the boards by double digits: 41-28 in Sunday's exhibition. Afterward, despite an 81-64 victory, players in the locker room slumped at the mention of their rebound effort, memories of last year's feeble averages still fresh.
Senior forward Joey King called it a "red flag." His co-captain, senior guard Carlos Morris, had a similar reaction.
"I'm pretty sure there are going to be bigger guys in the Big Ten," he said, shaking his head. "We get outrebounded by these guys? We've got to wake up. It's definitely a wake-up call."
Hold off the alarm bells for now, because Sunday's exhibition downer doesn't count toward the official record. Starting Friday, however, with the season opener vs. Missouri-Kansas City, everything will. After losing a pair of senior centers and integrating a host of young players, the Gophers' rebounding aptitude could be the difference between hatching some surprises in coach Richard Pitino's third year and tumbling into the Big Ten basement.
As Sunday showed, the Gophers have their work cut out for them.
"It will be good for us," Pitino said then. "You don't want to get obliterated on the glass, but we know that's a weakness of ours that we've got to get better at."
Pitino said Thursday he expects 6-11 sophomore center Bakary Konate to be available Friday after missing nearly a month because of a stress fracture in his left foot. But even with Konate, Minnesota faces an uphill climb.
Last year, with three players 6-10 or taller, Minnesota's rebounding margin sat second to last in the league at -2.5.
Now, with 6-10 Mo Walker and 6-11 Elliott Eliason graduating, the Gophers are smaller and more inexperienced. Walker and Eliason, along with senior guards Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu, combined to produce 49.7 percent of the team's rebounds last year. This year's squad will have to learn on the fly while trying to avoid continuing an already ugly trend.
Konate and 6-9 sophomore Gaston Diedhiou have the height, but they are still raw, barely dipping their feet into the NCAA pool a year ago after previously playing basketball in Europe and Africa. Diedhiou started both exhibitions and had some bright moments, totaling 16 points and 12 rebounds in the two games, but the learning curve will still be steep after playing only 5.2 minutes per game last season. Konate, meanwhile, will "be a little raw" on Friday, Pitino said, after only playing with contact in part of two practices.
"I'm looking at him as full-go," Pitino said. "Now, if I don't like what I'm seeing from a physicality standpoint, then we'll have to adjust."
Added King: "We went through a stretch of three or four weeks where guys were playing positions that they had never played before. So having Bakary back is a big boost."
Long, athletic freshman Jordan Murphy is probably the squad's best natural rebounder, a trait that could pressure Pitino to play the 6-6 forward more at power forward, where King, who averaged only three rebounds per game last season, is expected to start. Junior Charles Buggs, who has plenty of bounce and instincts, can contribute if the 6-9 forward stays on the court. In the past, he's been routinely benched because of missed assignments and losing focus.
Most likely, Minnesota will have to orchestrate a balanced team effort from point guard to post if it hopes to be competitive on the boards.
"We've got bigger guards this year, and so the guards have got to come down and help the bigs rebound," Morris said. "That's every game. It's tough … you can lose games with rebounding."