Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou stood side by side in the frontcourt, jaws set but eyes still wide.
The raw freshmen big men were in Madison for the first time last Saturday, facing the country’s No. 5 team, Wisconsin, and — in the midst of a season that has brought a trial by fire for the pair from Africa — suddenly were tasked with trying to stop preseason All-America center Frank Kaminsky.
Moments of intrigue were followed by wince-worthy ones. After Konate missed a jumper, Kaminsky, taking advantage of the matchup, quickly drilled a three-pointer. Seconds later, after another missed jumper, the Gophers backup center was called for a foul. Diedhiou, meanwhile, missed blockouts and key rebounds.
Asked what he thought of the experiment, coach Richard Pitino quipped, “I don’t like it,” after the Gophers’ 63-53 loss to the Badgers. “I don’t like watching it, but again, we’ve got to grow with it.”
Lately, that’s been the theme across the board.
In the past few weeks, Pitino has made it clear he’s less than thrilled with the output of some of his upperclassmen. Junior-college transfer Carlos Morris hasn’t tried hard enough on defense, he’s lamented. Senior point guard DeAndre Mathieu doesn’t have the right attitude. Junior forward Joey King gets away from the scouting report at times. Senior center Elliott Eliason hasn’t been effective.
And so with three games remaining in a regular season that seems destined to turn out a disappointment, Pitino made the conscious decision to rely more on the youth that will root his roster next year — ready or not.
“As we’re moving forward, these young guys have got to get reps,” he said Saturday.
Before the Wisconsin game, the coach had inserted freshman point guard Nate Mason in the starting lineup over Mathieu, a lineup change Pitino said Wednesday is likely to remain intact for Thursday’s game at Michigan State.
Two weeks ago, redshirt sophomore Charles Buggs took Morris’ spot at the wing. Meanwhile, the 6-11 Konate and the 6-9 Diedhiou should continue to get more important minutes — their stint together against Wisconsin came in the first half, coinciding with King’s foul trouble — even though both are still works in progress.
“I think the young guys are learning, and I think they’re picking up well,” senior center Mo Walker said. ”You’ve got to give them the court experience or they’ll never learn. … They’ll get better as time goes on.”
They’ll need to, if the Gophers — who have scheduled a tour in Spain this summer to get young players extra live experience before next season — want to turn a lackluster 2014-15 squad into a more consistent product.
In the present, the Gophers are fast running out of things to play for this season. Minnesota won’t make the NCAA tournament unless it wins the Big Ten tournament, and it’s still a long shot to make the NIT. Pitino, however, insists he’s still more concerned with victories than development and is eyeing the future only as it works in conjunction with the present.
“We’re still playing to win,” he said after the Wisconsin loss. “It’s not like winning has become secondary.”
Some of the growing minutes Diedhiou is receiving, Pitino said, is because of King’s frequent foul trouble more than anything else. Other playing time — Diedhiou played a season-high 10 minutes Saturday — the coach feels is earned.
But perhaps Pitino’s increasing reliance on his inexperienced core is just as telling about the rest of the team as it is about the players who are getting more minutes. Pitino said the lineup could remain fluid through season’s end.
“We’re going to try to win on Thursday [at Michigan State] and we’re going to play the guys that are playing hard, playing well and playing with a good attitude,” he said. “If it’s the older guys, it will be the older guys. If it’s the younger guys, it will be the younger guys.”