Going directly to the head coach to talk about more playing time is probably a scary thing for many young players who don't know what the reaction will be.
In Richard Pitino's case, his conversation recently with some reserves ended up being a catalyst for the Gophers basketball team's bench providing a much-needed spark in Tuesday's 85-80 overtime victory against Boston College. The bench scored 24 points combined, more than in all but one game last season.
"They absolutely came in and brought some life," Pitino said. "That's what embracing your role is all about."
The Gophers (5-0) host Missouri-Kansas City (2-2) on Thursday night trying to build on the bench production that aided a second-half comeback from 15 points down against Boston College.
Pitino has been known to shorten his rotation and play his starters heavy minutes. But that could change after freshman Jamal Mashburn Jr. and sophomores Tre' Williams and Isaiah Ihnen combined for 22 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and three steals Tuesday to help the Gophers overcome their largest deficit of the season.
"Everybody wants to play. Everybody wants to play major minutes," Pitino said. "We're constantly talking about everything we do is for Minnesota. They came in and brought unbelievable selfless energy."
Pitino has had more individual player meetings this year than any previous season. Part of that is dealing with the pandemic, but "a lot of them want increased roles," he added.
In particular, Mashburn, Williams and Ihnen were expecting to play more than the sparse minutes they got in the Gophers' first four games this season.
"I kept telling them over and over again, 'Make me play you,' " Pitino said. "The role of every player and every coach is to get better every day and help Minnesota win."
Mashburn, the U's top recruit last year, was supposed to be the backup Pitino desperately needed for starting point guard Marcus Carr. But Carr still averages a Big Ten-high 35.6 minutes a game. Mashburn was averaging 2.5 points in 11.1 minutes in four games, but he went from going scoreless in eight minutes last week against North Dakota to a season-best 10 points, three rebounds and three assists in 13 minutes vs. Boston College.
"I know coming in as a freshman you've got to be patient," Mashburn said. "Coach is still figuring out lineups and rotations. I never got down on myself. I always trust my work, and I'm always ready. In this Big Ten and [college basketball], you have to stay ready. Your number can be called at any time to help the team."
Staying confident as a freshman was something Williams and Ihnen struggled with mentally last year when they went from four-star recruits like Mashburn to rarely used reserves. Sometimes a few games would go by without them seeing the floor at all when the Gophers went to a seven-man rotation.
Their sophomore seasons were supposed to be different. But Williams (16.2 to 12.1) and Ihnen (11.4 to 10.5) saw their minutes per game decline from last season through four games. That prompted a chat with Pitino on defining their roles.
"I'm a team guy," Williams said. "Just getting to know the things he wants me to do and what I need to focus on."
Williams admitted he was more worried about his playing time last season than the Gophers struggling to win, but he just wants to contribute any way he can to their success this season. That has become the bench's motto.
"Everyone looks better when the team wins," Williams said. "My mind-set has changed. I'm a lot more selfless but still confident at the same time. Knowing I can make plays. I'm ready to take the big shot at any time but being selfless and worried about winning more than my stats or personal play."