Gophers adjusting to Richard Pitino, embracing underdog status

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota men’s basketball team has now had a bit of time to get familiar with new head coach Richard Pitino. For those players who spent time under former coach Tubby Smith’s system, there has been a learning curve.

The 31-year-old Pitino emphasizes an up-tempo pace, meaning conditioning is key. After just a week’s worth of official practices, the Gophers are finding that out the hard way.

“We’ve been going hard these past five, six days, really picking up our intensity defensively,” junior point guard Andre Hollins said Tuesday. “It’s fun. It’s a nice, refreshing change.”

Hollins was one of three players voted as the team captains by the rest of the teammates. He’s joined by senior Austin Hollins and senior Maverick Ahanmisi. Pitino said the trio are all more of the lead-by-example types, something Andre Hollins did even as a sophomore.

Last year, the Memphis native led the Gophers in scoring by averaging 14.6 points per game. His 3.4 assists per game were also a team high. While Hollins let his play do the talking for him last year, he admits he needs to become a more vocal leader as both an upperclassman and now as a captain.

“It means a lot to earn their respect,” Hollins said. “It’s a lot more responsibility. … I was more (a leader) by example last year in my play. Now I’m going to have to pick it up vocally. I’ll have to talk a lot more. I don’t talk enough for a guard and for a leader. That’s one of the things I’m going to have to do. I think I’m improving on that.”

While the three captains have established themselves with the Gophers, the team welcomes four newcomers to the roster this year. That includes senior Malik Smith, who transferred from Florida International; junior Deandre Mathieu, a junior college transfer from Central Arizona College; Joey King, a Minnesota native who comes to the Gophers from Drake; and freshman Daquein McNeil. Pitino said McNeil was sidelined with an ankle injury and is still only 80 percent, but has been a “pleasant surprise.”

While Smith has been granted eligibility to play this season, the Gophers are still waiting on word regarding King’s eligibility. Pitino said Thursday that he’s “optimistic, but certainly cautiously optimistic” that King, a 6-foot-9 forward, will be available to play this year.

“Hopefully we’ll hear any day now,” Pitino said. “It’s in the NCAA’s hands.”

Regardless of whether or not King can play this year, he’s been able to practice with his new Minnesota teammates. The Gophers captains have certainly been impressed with all four newcomers.

“The new guys have been great. They’re fitting in really well,” said Austin Hollins. “We’ll be a close-knit group. We’re going to have a lot of camaraderie. That’ll be huge when we start playing, getting to know your personnel and how each person plays.”

Having played for Pitino at FIU, Smith hasn’t had to make much of an adjustment, his coach said. As for the rest of the group, Pitino said they’re right on schedule in terms of preseason conditioning, and admits the adjustment process has been smoother than anticipated.

“There’s a lot of things that they pick up on very quickly,” Pitino said. “Certainly, there’s certain terminology coach (Tubby) Smith used because he worked for my father, and I worked for my father. The adjustment has not been as big as I’d thought it would be. Guys have been extremely willing to pick up on it and embrace it.”

Despite making the NCAA tournament last year and winning a game, the Gophers are not predicted by experts to be among the Big Ten’s top teams. In fact, due in large part to the losses of Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams, many believe Minnesota fill finish near the bottom of the conference this year.

That doesn’t faze the Gophers, who insist they aren’t buying into any of the preseason hoopla.

“We kind of take it as a slap in the face, but that’s their prediction,” Andre Hollins said. “We’re going to use that as motivation and prove ourselves.”

Added Austin Hollins: “They can say what they want, but I guarantee you we’re working harder than any team in the Big Ten. We’re going to go out there and show them what we can do.”

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter