Last season, when the Gophers were hit hard by injuries, freshmen Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi and Chip Armelin had to play. They responded with promising moments flecked with missed shots, careless turnovers and rookie mistakes.
"The best thing about freshmen is that hopefully they'll be sophomores someday," coach Tubby Smith said with a grin.
They are sophomores now, and expectations have changed. Last year, they were first-timers on a team rife with issues, and the minutes mattered as much as the points. This year, there's no longer satisfaction in getting their feet wet.
They still don't figure to be the superstars. Those responsibilities fall to Trevor Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson III and Rodney Williams. They also don't possess the same intrigue as this year's talented freshmen. As the Gophers prepare for their final exhibition tuneup Monday against Augustana before opening the regular season Friday against Bucknell, the roles of Hollins, Ahanmisi and Armelin remain a work in progress. But they are ready for the unknown.
"I was just ready for anything that happened," said Hollins, referring to the start of the season. "I was just going out and working hard this offseason in case of whichever scenario, however it went down."
Ahanmisi, who averaged 2.1 points in a limited role last year, appears to have fallen behind in the starting point guard competition. Armelin showed a knack for scoring in bunches last season and appears set to play as a reserve again, for now. After starting five games as a freshman and leading the team with 38 steals, Hollins has an uneasy hold on a starting job at shooting guard.
But whatever roles they claim in November could change by December. They know that. They've been through it before, and they've been through it together.
"The team is [close], in general," Hollins said, "but us getting the minutes that we did and the experience, we had to be behind each other. ... It was rough trying to make that transition, but I think we did and it made us closer."
Ahanmisi and Hollins are roommates, and Armelin often comes over to hang out. They say they've developed a unique bond, and that -- as much as anything -- defined them and helped carry them as freshmen.
"We just all really knew what we were all going through because we were all in the same situation," Ahanmisi said. "So we'd just help pick each other up and help each other go through it. We all knew that we'd be here for the long haul, so we just needed to push through it and keep our heads up and prepare for next season and the following seasons after that."
Where they fit -- as with most players at this point in the season -- might still be undetermined, but Smith has no doubt the maturity gained will help their contributions.
"Those guys will all play. It's just earning the opportunities," he said. "They know the offense better than the new guys. ... They understand our defensive system and now they need to just elevate their game."
Smith also sees a significant intangible function in the sophomores' ability -- now that they're comfortable with the style of play -- to help guide their peers. The new freshmen have to play, and this group has the luxury of learning and growing before the season starts.
"Getting those minutes last year and making that transition helps us to mentor the new guys coming in so they know what to expect and kind of help them avoid the things that we may have done wrong," Hollins said. "And being in a position where it's so recent, I think we can do that."