I don't think anyone who follows this Minnesota team and regularly listens to coach Richard Pitino would guess that redshirt sophomore Charles Buggs would be in the starting lineup in mid February.
Yet, due to a combination of a lack of depth (following Daquein McNeil's departure from the team), improvement from Buggs and frustration with Carlos Morris -- who has started every game except the two vs. Iowa -- here we are.
And most likely, Buggs is there to stay for a little while. After Thursday's 64-59 win at Iowa, Pitino said his motivation for the switch was to create a bigger lineup against the Hawkeyes -- who are the fifth biggest team in college basketball according to kenpom.com, but he lauded the wing's work ethic in practice recently as well as his defensive improvement.
Considering it was Minnesota's best win of the year -- and maybe of Pitino's tenure -- the coach isn't tempted to reshuffle.
"We won," he said. "So obviously, we'll stick with it."
But none of that is to suggest that the new situation is perfect. A few minutes after complimenting his new starter, Pitino bluntly stated that he doesn't trust Buggs -- which was all about right, considering we were treated to a classic edition of Good Buggs - Bad Buggs leading up to the press conference.
Buggs, who has now started twice in his career, finished with seven points on three-for-five shooting, collected four rebounds, a few of them in critical moments and had a pair of steals -- the last coming when he snatched the ball from Gabriel Olaseni with 1:16 to play and Minnesota up by 5. Freshman Nate Mason wound up with it and promptly was fouled, hitting both shots and giving the Gophers a bit more of a cushion.
"I thought that was one of the biggest plays," Andre Hollins said.
But 17 seconds later, Buggs turned the ball over after the team had secured an offensive rebound. Then with 20 seconds left, and Minnesota still clinging within 5, he fouled Jarrod Uthoff on the three-point line. Uthoff hit all three offerings from the foul stripe to put Iowa within 2.
"He's still learning," said senior center Mo Walker. "He's still young. This is the second start of his career. He's put in the position where he's young and he's going to have to be out there and make plays. He's going to make mistakes"
Walker was vocal with Buggs through out. After a big rebound late in the second half, he put his arm around his younger teammate. When Buggs tossed away the ball late, he told him to let it go.
Pitino called that last minute a "mini meltdown" for Buggs but pointed out that the mistakes, along with the win, provided for a good teaching moment.
The coach has always talked about Buggs' improvement in terms of baby steps, not strides, and nothing about that philosophy has changed now. As much as anything, he said, the next step is building confidence.
"He's slowly getting better," Pitino said. "But he's come a long way ... He's been working hard. He now needs to understand that he can be a good player."