When Bakary Konate comes out of the lineup and heads for the bench, his teammates might wince a little.

They know the obligatory hand-slap parade is coming, and the Gophers sophomore center has more than a little punch in his high-fives.

"You shake his hand and he's ripping your hand off," coach Richard Pitino said. "I always tell him, 'Don't try to break my hand.' "

Such is the Konate way. Since joining Minnesota two summers ago, the big man from West Africa has gained a reputation for attacking just about everything in his life — from school, to basketball, to salsa dancing — at full force.

The coaches laud his commitment to his classes and to working on his game on his own. Konate has welcomed American culture with open arms, from the fast-food lifestyle (Taco Bell is a favorite) to reality TV ("Real Husbands of Hollywood" has caught his eye). And despite the fact English is the fourth language he's learned, Konate has become one of the more vocal players on the team, Pitino has said.

"I have big goals," Konate said. "My family and all the people who support me, I know I have to do well."

But in a season in which Konate's slow progress has been one of many disappointments on a team that dropped to historic lows after an 0-13 start to Big Ten play before Thursday's upset over No. 6 Maryland, getting him to slow down and take one step at a time has been a major focus — albeit carefully.

"You'd rather tone down a bronco than warm up a corpse," Pitino said. "And with BK, that's him. You've got to calm him down.

"But I love that about him. He plays very hard, he's very passionate. He wants to be great, and it's nice to see."

Learning to 'chill'

Assistant Nate Pomeday works out with Konate after hours or between classes regularly — often due to a text request from the center. Lately, Pomeday says Konate has been "dialed in" to two goals in particular: improving his hands and working on his baby hook shot.

In the past couple of weeks, that work appeared to pay off. At Iowa on Feb. 14, he finished with five points and nine rebounds, a performance that Pitino dubbed his best in Maroon and Gold.

Konate averaged 6.2 points and seven rebounds in five games heading into last Thursday after putting up 3.3 points and 2.3 rebounds in the previous four.

But Thursday, Konate looked panicked with the ball, managing just four rebounds while going scoreless.

"He is very motivated," Pomeday said. "He definitely has high expectations of himself and when he's not meeting them, he puts a lot of pressure on himself.

"He still makes mistakes, he's still learning as a sophomore. But I think you're seeing less and less."

Yet Minnesota's lack of a go-to threat inside is considered one of its bigger weaknesses, especially against the Big Ten's hefty frontcourts. Konate is the face of that struggle.

He often mishandles passes and rebounds, letting them bounce off his hands. Post moves have been a work in progress. And his intensity — Konate likes to stare into the faces of his opponents after dunking on them — often comes out in the form of fouls, even in practice when he guards with such forcefulness that he'll sometimes slug teammates by accident.

"Bakary has smacked me in the face like three times," transfer Reggie Lynch said. "I have to tell him 'Um, that's a foul, you have to chill.' "

With the ups and downs has come frustration. Teammates are hesitant to to throw the ball inside at times, even when Konate has his man sealed off from the basket. That trust issue is a constant topic of his conversations with Pomeday.

"I'll say, 'Why they don't feed me?' " Konate said. "Those bigs cannot stop me. I know it ... I know what I can do. But they will feed me one time and I didn't score that one time, I missed a shot, or I traveled, they'll say, 'Yeah, you're done.'

"I say, 'One chance?' That's not anything. They get a lot more than one shot in a game. They shoot more than five, six times, seven times. But you give me only one shot and then you say, 'No, I'm not effective in the post.' "

Pitino, meanwhile will chuckle.

"We had to calm him down, like, 'Relax, Keyshawn Johnson, we'll get you the ball,' " he said, referencing the former NFL star who famously wrote his autobiography "Just Give Me the Damn Ball" shortly after his rookie season.

The two Bakarys

The Mali native joined Minnesota after spending his high school years in Spain, where athletes eat fish-filled croquetas instead of instant tacos, and where the focus is more on shooting and less on a big man's post moves.

Konate played just 8.9 minutes a game last year but inherited the starting job this season after centers Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason graduated. The result has been a player transitioning to both the American game and a higher level while standing firmly in the spotlight.

"We threw him into the fire," Pitino said of Konate, who is averaging 4.7 points and 4.5 rebounds in 21.2 minutes a game. "It may not look pretty right now … but it's probably going to be good for him in the end."

Elsewhere, Konate has adapted beautifully, coaches say. Pomeday said he comes to the gym every day with a giant smile, regardless of the losses. He is absorbed in his classes, getting upset when he makes anything below a B in his business marketing major. He joins his teammates' talk about the NBA and football, plays the same video games and tries to force them to go salsa dancing with him whenever he gets the chance.

And unlike a year ago, when Konate admitted that he often had no idea what Pitino was yelling in heated practices, he says he understands most everything now.

"Coach kind of caught onto that like halfway through," Pomeday said. "He was like, 'You're just nodding your head and you have no idea!'

"Now, [Konate is] vocal in huddles. If he's frustrated with something, he lets the guys know. He speaks up."

Off the court, Pomeday calls Konate a jokester, marveling at his ability to be funny in a language that's not his own.

"There are these two different Bakarys," Pomeday said. "There is this super-competitive Bakary on the court, where you'll see that frustration, you'll see excitability. ... And at the same time, whenever we're going to the movies as a team, he's the first one to be joking and messing around with the guys, making funny side comments.

"I kind of take a step back and go, 'That's you, Bakary, busting everybody's [chops]?' "

An hour later, Konate might be alone in the gym, fierce-faced, trying desperately to improve. Motivation is not on his list of shortcomings.

"I know I'm close," he said. "I struggle, but that cannot make me go away from the goal I have in my mind: just to get better and trust what I'm doing."