When the Gophers quietly signed JUCO DeAndre Mathieu over the summer, I doubt anyone did back flips (other than Mathieu, who most certainly did them if he is capable).
Andre Hollins had become the team's point guard, and surely a tiny, 5-9 kid who started out as a walk-on wouldn't beat the Gophers' leader out for that spot.
But five games into the Big Ten schedule, Mathieu -- the starting point guard this season from Day One -- is continuing to show us what he has all year: He's indispensable, maybe the most indispensable player on this team.
(aside: If I had told you in October that Andre Hollins would rank no higher than third on a list of most valuable individuals on this 2013-14 Minnesota team, would you have believed me? I don't think I would have believed myself. Yet that's exactly the way things stand -- it's hard to argue that Mathieu and Elliott Eliason haven't secured those top two spots.)
Mathieu is only growing (as a player ... I think his height is final). While he has made us all very aware that he can score at the basket above opponents that are much bigger than he is, it's not always a smart idea -- or necessary -- in the Big Ten. Against Ohio State, the Tennessee native showed perhaps the best judgment in a full game as he has all season, aptly choosing when to take the ball to the hoop and when to kick out to his teammates, while also display a pretty effective floater that we haven't seen much this year.
"He was intelligent --I think he certainly learned from the Michigan State game," coach Richard Pitino said. "He needs to stop trying to drive in amongst the trees when there's two or three guys in there. Now if it's one-on-one, he can go make a play at the rim like he did at the end of the Michigan State game, by all means. But he's got to be smarter about his attempts, and last night he was about to drive it, they backed up, he knocked down two or three open shots, which was big."
The guard is improving in part because he's so coachable. Pitino has referred to his new player as a version of him, on the floor, and doesn't hesitate to get in Mathieu's ear when he makes a mistake. The guard handles the sharp instruction well -- not every player does.
"He’s one of those guys you love to yell at," Pitino said. "He’s fun. He’s hilarious."
Sometimes, the Gophers coach will just mess with his floor general, who has quickly proven wrong the many people in his past who told him he was too undersized to play at a high leveL.
At one point, Mathieu came out in the second half vs. OSU, looking fatigued. Pitino said Mathieu simply got the wind knocked out of him.
"He’s looking at me, and I said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’" Pitino said. "He said, ‘I got the wind knocked out.’ I said, ‘You’re just too small. Get off the court.’ He got all mad at me. So we got him out. But we need him on the court. He made a lot of great plays.”
Thursday, Mathieu looked like the better point guard on the floor, even though his counterpart was highly respected Ohio State senior Aaron Craft. Mathieu outplayed him entirely, finishing with 13 points, four rebounds and five assists.
Afterward, the guard struggled to contain his excitement.
"My family, people back home, they talk about him a lot," he said of Craft. "They were like, ‘This is your chance. This is who you’ve been waiting for all year.’ When I went home for Christmas break that’s all they talked about … I didn’t really care. I just wanted to play basketball. I just try to be the best point guard every time I touch the floor. I’ll go at anybody – I don’t really care.
"I can’t wait to check my Twitter. I know they’re going crazy. Don’t tell Coach Pitino I said that, but I can’t wait to check my Twitter."
Another brief note:
At the beginning of the season, when Eliason was 20 pounds heavier and by all accounts far more out of shape, Pitino joked (we think) to the media that he could beat his big man in a pushup contest. It seems Eliason has been thinking about that exchange. Friday, he jumped at the opportunity to retort back.
"I would kill him right now," Eliason said. "It wouldn't even be a match. We could do it right now. I'd run circles around him in a pushup contest. I mean, I saw him get pretty heated last night, he got a pretty good toss on that jacket. But I don't know, I'm pretty confident in myself when it comes to a pushup contest."