Oto Osenieks thriving in Gophers’ new uptempo style

When players from the Gophers men’s basketball team talked at their media day last month, many referred to this era under first-year coach Richard Pitino as a new start.

That’s certainly been true for redshirt junior Oto Osenieks, who has flourished so far with a new coach.

A 6-foot-8 forward who originally hails from Latvia, Osenieks’ first two seasons in a Gophers uniform were nothing to write home about. After a redshirt year during the 2010-11 season, he averaged 3.0 points in 11.1 minutes per game. Those numbers declined as a sophomore to just 2.2 points in a measly 9.1 minutes per game off the bench.

Sometimes a change of scenery can do wonders for a player. So, too, can a new coach.

“I see it as a new start for myself, too,” Osenieks said at media day. “I’m not satisfied with my first two seasons here, the way I played. I take it as a new start. I’m excited to play for coach Pitino.”

It’s hard not to notice Osenieks’ improved play already during Minnesota’s first five games — all victories. He set a new career high with 13 points in a win Tuesday over Coastal Carolina, and then bested his own personal best just one game later with a 14-point output against Wofford on Thursday.

“Every night, hopefully it will just keep improving,” Osenieks joked about setting new career highs.

In just five games this year, Osenieks has already topped double-figures in scoring twice. He scored eight, nine and six points, respectively, in the Gophers’ first three games. As a sophomore last year he hit the 10-mark twice all season.

Osenieks has had to adjust to an increase in playing time as well, especially this past Thursday when Minnesota was without forward Joey King and center Mo Walker. That meant Osenieks spent some time at center, a position he never played at the college level.

“Oto played the five, and that’s tough to do because he never practices at the five,” Pitino said after Thursday’s win. “It’s not like we had three days to prepare. You only have one day to prepare. That shows his basketball IQ.”

Pitino was asked if he watched film of Osenieks’ performances from the previous two seasons before he took the head coaching job this past spring. The 31-year-old Pitino said he watched just a handful of games. Chances are, not much from Osenieks’ performances stood out.

Pitino said he also stayed away from watching too much old game film when he took the head coaching job at Florida International last season. He’d rather see first-hand what his players can do, and so far he’s liked what he’s seen from Osenieks.

“I didn’t want to predetermine anything. I didn’t want to do that,” Pitino said. “Every situation is so different. Some guys just need a fresh start. Maybe that was the case with Oto.”

It indeed seems as if this fresh start has rejuvenated Osenieks, who has gone from a seldom-used bench player to a starter. He logged a career-high 30 minutes on Tuesday against Coastal Carolina and didn’t seem to show signs of fatigue in the process despite Pitino’s uptempo brand of basketball.

In fact, Osenieks seemed to thrive with the opportunity to play more minutes. He grabbed five rebounds and had a block to go along with what was then a career-high 13 points.

It’s no doubt a small sample size of just five games, but there’s also been another major improvement in Osenieks’ game: his 3-point shooting. Last season he was an abysmal 2-for-26 from behind the arc. He had already matched last year’s total for threes made after the first two games and is now shooting 37.5 percent (6-for-16) from downtown to give Minnesota yet another option from 3-point range.

Pitino has no qualms about his players shooting 3-pointers, and Osenieks has so far backed up his new coach’s confidence in his ability to shoot.

“At first, I had to get to know his system,” Osenieks said. “He told me he has pick and pop four shooters, which I would play. I kind of knew that would be my role and I would benefit from that.”

There have been several players who have benefited from a new style of basketball, but perhaps none more so than Osenieks. His stats in nearly every category — points, rebounds, blocks, shooting percentage — are up from a year ago.

So is his confidence.

“I keep telling him, don’t worry about anything but playing aggressively. He’s showing that,” Pitino said. “I just love the confidence that he’s playing with right now.”

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