Saturday night, after Bakary Konate had come from nowhere to suddenly display a couple of nice interior moves in a near miss against then No. 1 Michigan State, coach Richard Pitino was asked if he had seen that player begin to emerge in practice.
“No,” he chuckled. “Not really.”
Whatever it was – a little bit of luck, a flash of what’s to come – evaded the 6-11 big man a game later, when he struggled to defend and with foul trouble against Penn State’s big length and size in State College.
Through it all, Pitino has preached patience. While Konate pivoting past his defender and ramming home a shot at the rim probably isn’t a true reflection of his capability right now, so too do Konate’s struggles not necessarily represent all he can be, the coach believes.
“He practices extremely hard,” Pitino said. “He comes early, he stays late. Everything he does, he is committed to excellence, whether it’s in the classroom – with everything. He’s a special, special kid.
“Guys that work that hard, care that much are going to be good players. It’s just a matter of when not if.”
Konate, who last played in Europe and Africa, was expected to have a long learning curve as he learned the American game. He was recruited for his upside, not his ability to come in and take control right away. In an ideal world, he wouldn’t be starting center for any Big Ten team right now, he’d still be in apprentice-mode, with someone ahead of him to take some of the pressure from his shoulders.
But the Gophers’ personnel dictates that he’s the guy. Pitino said the pressure Konate feels in that role could be part of what’s holding him back.
“I know I can help my team,” Konate said. “I let my team down a lot of games. I know if I do my job rebounding and being more aggressive in the paint and motivated because these guys are my brothers, my family. We need a win. We practice all the time, I think we practice harder than anybody. And we deserve to win and feel good.”
The Gophers are trying to manage the weight Konate feels, framing their expectations around rim defense and focusing on blocking out and rebounding. It’s not a perfect solution, given that the Gophers – who aren’t great shooters – could really, really, really use a reliable post scorer right about now. But they also know it’s not realistic, not yet.
“But when you put in that much time, sometimes you want the results right away,” Pitino said. “You’ve got to understand you’ve got to be patient. He’s not ready to be an offensive threat right now. He’s not. I tell him all the time, ‘Bakary, you don’t do that in practice, why do you think you’re going to do it in the game?’ Be a great defender, be a great rebounder, but more than anything stop putting pressure on himself because nobody has asked him to do the things that he’s putting pressure on himself to do.”