If Akeem Springs’ only priority was starting, he probably wouldn’t be thriving now coming off the Gophers’ bench.
After graduating from Wisconsin-Milwaukee this summer, the guard jumped at the opportunity to transfer and play immediately at a bigger school. He considered Mississippi, close to his family, but he joined the Gophers partly because he believed he could make a bigger impact in a lineup with opportunities coming off an eight-win season.
Springs envisioned being a starter at Minnesota, but he ended up as the sixth man this fall. That decision, while not part of Springs’ plan for his senior season, has proved wise, with Springs emerging as a leader and a big reason why Minnesota is off to an 8-1 start.
Did it take time to adjust to not starting?
“Absolutely,” Springs said. “I’m a guy through college who averaged about 30 minutes. So it definitely took some getting used to. But you know, it’s just about being ready, getting ready. Knowing that in my minutes, I have trying to make the most of the minutes. It’s definitely a change, but if you’re winning you can’t ask for more.”
The Gophers, who play host to Georgia Southern (4-4) on Friday at Williams Arena, are off to their best start since the 2011-12 season. Springs helped them get to this point, most recently scoring a season-high 19 points (11 in the second half) of Tuesday’s 74-68 victory against New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Before the season, a tweet from Springs caused a brief stir with fans when he wrote, “looks like my time in Minnesota was shorter than I thought.” Family members said he was frustrated with not starting. The tweet prompted coach Richard Pitino to meet with Springs, but he told his coach not to be concerned.
A week later, Springs was named one of three team captains with junior guard Nate Mason and sophomore forward Jordan Murphy. He’s clearly the most vocal of the three and has the most experience, having played in the NCAA tournament in 2015. He still was surprised to be picked as a captain, having only been at the U for a couple of months.
“I didn’t vote for myself,” Springs said. “It’s humbling to know my teammates think that much of me.”
Pitino said Springs immediately changed the tone in practice by being unafraid to be vocal and challenge his teammates. Springs always feels a need to prove himself, having not been offered major-conference scholarships out of Waukegan (Ill.) High School.
He spent his freshman season at Northern Illinois, which plays the Gophers on Sunday.
“You have to be super-confident in yourself and show people that they made a mistake,” Springs said. “You have to work your hardest. I still have a chip on my shoulder. That’s what makes me stay in the gym. That’s what makes me call [teammate Reggie Lynch], and say, ‘You got to talk better.’ ”
Lynch played host to Springs on a recruiting visit last spring. They bonded, but Lynch didn’t get a taste of Springs’ leadership ability until the season started.
“He’s making his voice known and his presence felt,” Lynch said. “He definitely plays his heart out every single possession. You can see every game, every second matters to him.”
At 6-4 and 220 pounds, Springs is physical enough to match up with taller players and is considered one of the team’s top defenders. On offense, he’s been mostly a three-point shooter. Seventeen of his 23 baskets have been threes. He leads the Gophers in three-pointers made and attempted, while shooting a career-best 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Springs isn’t scoring as much (down from 13.2 at Milwaukee to 8.1 points) or playing as many minutes (31.9 to 19.8) as he did last season. But he’s figured out how to be effective in a different role with the Gophers.
“It’s a different year for me,” he said. “I’m just doing whatever I can. If it’s me making a shot, if it’s me getting a rebound or guarding the best player, whatever it is. Any way I can help get the win.”