Ping by ping, the foursome has been preparing for big things.
Let’s schedule an open gym.
We need an extra workout.
Someone needs to get extra shots up.
After at least four — for some, five — years of collegiate ball, the Gophers seniors know the routine, and it shows in their text messages to each other. They now know their second-year coach, Richard Pitino. They know the hard days ahead.
And because of the simple facts — four of the six most critical players on the Gophers basketball squad are seniors — they know the opportunity that awaits in the coming days.
One season after raising the NIT championship trophy, the Gophers boast the most promising senior class the program has seen since the 2007-08 season, when Lawrence McKenzie, Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson were returning double-digit scorers. Three of these seniors will start; the other likely will finish sixth in minutes. All have flashed moments of greatness, and much more will be expected of them.
But they don’t text about this. They text about arranging meetings and workouts and keeping things on schedule only two weeks before they tip off for the first time at Williams Arena. The details, the ones they know better than anyone on this team, are the key to surviving in the arduous Big Ten.
“We kind of feel the pressure,” DeAndre Mathieu said on the Williams Arena floor at media day Tuesday. “Just going out there and giving it our all every game. Coach looks at us of leaders of the new guys, and we know what it takes to win a championship. We’ve just got to help the other guys.”
A dynamic duo of senior guards in Mathieu, the speed demon at the point, and Andre Hollins, the sharpshooter alongside him, will drive the backcourt. In the frontcourt, Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker are a pair of centers whose games are so different and complementary that Pitino likes to refer to them as his “two-headed monster.” Eliason is the finesse player with a knack for swatting opponents’ shots, and Walker the bruising force.
“It just screams experience,” said Joey King, a junior expected to start at power forward. “That a lot of us have been there and played in these big games before. And I think that will translate.”
Bucking one-and-done trend
These days, the concept of experience as a strength has changed. The NBA’s one-and-done rule has changed the college landscape. Talented freshmen and sophomores help teams drive deep into the NCAA tournament, then leave for the pros.
Kentucky, mostly on the might of 18-year-olds, has made the NCAA title game in two of the past three years.
Even so, five of last year’s Elite Eight — Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Connecticut and Dayton — and three of the Final Four teams in the NCAA tournament relied heavily on upperclassmen.
This season, the Gophers have as many meaningful upperclassmen as anyone, but the league isn’t bare. Illinois has three senior starters. Ohio State has seven seniors to help bridge the gap to its heralded recruiting class. Wisconsin is loaded with wily veterans once more.
Many Big Ten coaches still believe there is no substitute for simply having longevity in a program.
At the conference media day last week, Northwestern coach Chris Collins waved off comments about his highly touted freshman class — ranked 31st nationally according to ESPN — saying that the most important players in the Big Ten are the ones who had been through it before.
“People always talk about experience or inexperience, but the ability to have guys stick together and play together and grow from that is really beneficial in high major basketball,” Purdue coach Matt Painter agreed.
Hollins nodded when asked about the benefits of experience. At the end of tight conference games, he noted, nothing is a surprise.
“You’ve already been through it,” he said. “You know to just slow down your breathing, concentrate, focus and not let your emotions get the best of you and do anything sporadically or crazy.”
Leadership trickles down
Iowa’s Fran McCaffery — who has seven upperclassmen who received major minutes last year — said true value is found when young guys are challenging the seniors and the veterans respect that. Similarly, Pitino pointed out the importance of that leadership trickling down. He dreams of the day he hears Hollins correct a player or explain why he’s disappointed in someone after a mistake.
Said Penn State coach Pat Chambers of one of his seniors: “D.J. Newbill knows every drill by now. He knows all of my sayings. He knows what I want to do. He might say it before I say it.”
Similarly, the plans the Gophers seniors make, via group texts, are critical to the team’s development. If Minnesota’s experience proves to be a boost, it will begin with the small things, Pitino knows. The extra workouts. The culture. The professionalism.
“Being able to have guys understand what it takes on a daily basis, mentally, more so than physically,” Pitino said. “I think the biggest challenge on student-athletes today is the mental part — just the grind of going through these things. That’s difficult, and they understand that. That’s big, and that’s where I think it’s crucial.”