DeAndre Mathieu has become Minnesota's most exciting player
Pitino had to scramble to fill a recruiting class when he took the job last April, and Mathieu was one of his additions. At just 5-foot-9, some wondered whether Mathieu was too small to play in the Big Ten, let alone thrive in one of college basketball's best conferences. And Mathieu didn't play the toughest competition while at Morehead (Ky.) State as a freshman or Central Arizona College as a sophomore. But the diminutive guard has been fun to watch and one of the Gophers' biggest weapons on offense. Mathieu has shown a knack for getting to the hoop and isn't afraid to challenge opposing teams' big men. Not many players in the Big Ten can match Mathieu's quickness. The Gophers are glad he'll be around again for another year.
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Mo Walker 2.0 has been better than expected
Walker was essentially a non-factor in his previous few years at Minnesota. As a freshman, he played in just 12 games and averaged 3.7 points off the bench. A knee injury forced him to miss the following year as he took a medical redshirt. Last year as a redshirt sophomore, Walker played just 6.6 minutes per game and never really fit in previous coach Tubby Smith's system. Even early this season, Walker was suspended six games for violating a university policy. But Walker shed 60 pounds in the offseason, and the slimmed-down center has been a serviceable big man for Minnesota. Entering Tuesday's game, he's averaging 7.4 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, both of which are easily career highs.
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Austin Hollins hasn't progressed the way some thought -- or hoped -- he would
Coming into this year, Minnesota knew for sure it had two reliable players to count on in Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins. While Andre has been hampered by an ankle injury, Austin has stayed healthy all season. He was one of Minnesota's better players in non-conference action but has struggled in Big Ten play. While Hollins is averaging 10.9 points per game this year, that number has dipped to just 8.6 ppg in conference games. Hollins' 3-point shooting (29.2 percent) is the lowest it's been since his freshman year, and his 1.8 turnovers per game are a career high. Hollins has been a lead-by-example player for the Gophers, but his game simply hasn't taken the next step like Gophers fans had hoped it would in his senior year. While still a solid defensive player, Hollins' offense has been inconsistent.
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Pitino's up-tempo style hasn't been much faster than Gophers teams of years past
When Pitino took over this past offseason, he talked about how he hoped to play an up-tempo style of basketball. And while Pitino's team has seemingly played a more entertaining brand of basketball, the difference in tempo compared to last year's team is negligible. According to statsheet.com, Minnesota averaged 63.7 possessions per game during the 2012-13 season. That number has only jumped up in the 2013-14 season to 65.9 possessions per game, which ranks 259th in the nation. Despite a slightly faster tempo, though, the Gophers have actually committed fewer turnovers per game (11.9) than they did a year ago at a slower tempo (13.7). However, the uptick in speed hasn't necessarily translated into a high-scoring offense; Minnesota's 71.4 points per game ranks 176th in the nation and eighth in the Big Ten.
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The Gophers have been able to compete with the Big Ten's best
While the last several games have been rough for Minnesota, Pitino's team has actually proven that it can go toe-to-toe with the top teams in the conference. That was evident earlier in the conference season when the Gophers took Michigan State to overtime -- on the road, no less. One game later, Minnesota upset No. 11 Ohio State at home in what looked at the time to be a signature win. The Gophers later toppled No. 9 Wisconsin at Williams Arena. Given how many question marks Minnesota had entering the season, these weren't necessarily games that the Gophers were expected to win. Yet thanks to some wins over teams in the upper half of the Big Ten, Minnesota now sits at 17-11 overall and 6-9 in the conference. Minnesota may need another win or two, however, against Big Ten teams in order to earn a trip to the NCAA tournament.