Gophers balancing big men with eye on both present, future

With senior Elliott Eliason (left) graduating after the season, the Gophers look to freshman Bakary Konate as Minnesota's center of the future.

Marilyn Indahl/Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason won’t be on the Gophers’ roster next season. Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou will.

The first two are senior centers, having logged plenty of minutes over the years, including postseason tournament games. The latter two are raw and inexperienced freshmen big men. In fact, Diedhiou (pronounced JAY-joo) has yet to play in a college game.

With one eye on the present and the other on the future, Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino has had to balance the playing time his big men have received. Walker is logging a career-high 22.3 minutes per game, while Eliason is seeing 13.4 minutes of action per night. Konate, though, an unpolished 6-foot-11 center from Mali, has spent plenty of games watching from the bench.

Konate played for just four minutes against Purdue in Minnesota’s Big Ten opener and then did not see the court in the next four games. That’s why it was a bit of a surprise to see Konate play 17 minutes in Saturday’s win over Rutgers, especially with Eliason only playing four minutes off the bench.

The impact Konate had in the Rutgers game was minimal: he had more fouls (3) than points (2), and grabbed just one rebound in those 17 minutes. But Pitino knows games like that are important to develop Konate so he’s no longer raw by the time next season starts.

After all, Konate could open the 2015-16 season as the Gophers’ starting center.

"We knew he’d be raw bringing him in. I think just the reality of the situation is we’re going to have to develop big guys," Pitino said Monday. "With Bakary, it’s almost like less is more. The less mistakes he makes, the more he’ll play. I don’t think he made a whole lot of mistakes last game except for fouling. That was probably the biggest issue. He’s got to get better at that; he fouls a lot."

Diedhiou’s case has been an interesting one. The Senegal native wasn’t eligible at the beginning of the year due to admissions issues. He had to retake his English proficiency exam before he was admitted to the university in mid-December, just in time for the second semester. Diedhiou has now been with the Gophers for a few weeks but has yet to get into a game.

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The fact that four of Minnesota’s first five Big Ten games were decided by five points or less didn’t make it any easier for Pitino to entertain the idea of playing Diedhiou. And if not for sustaining an injury in practice (he hurt his iliotibial band) before the Rutgers game, Diedhiou may have finally gotten into a game, according to Pitino.

"If we find that he can help us, if we can get him to the point where he can help us, we’ll play him," Pitino said. "I thought he was getting to that, and then he got hurt. I think we take it day by day."

On Monday, Pitino was asked about the possibility of redshirting Diedhiou, given that the Gophers’ season is now past the midway point and the 6-foot-9 forward still hasn’t played. By all accounts it sounds as if Pitino and the coaching staff remain hopeful that Diedhiou can contribute this season. Pitino added the fact that Diedhiou is a 21-year-old freshman, making a redshirt season make even less sense — he’d be 26 by his senior year.

On top of all that, the Gophers have struggled to rebound the basketball this year. Minnesota ranks second-to-last in the Big Ten in rebounding margin, averaging just 34.7 rebounds per game. Having Diedhiou’s 6-foot-9 frame could certainly help.

"We’ve got to get him going, because part of our rebounding problem is it’s not a lack of effort from Joey (King) and (Charles) Buggs," Pitino said. "They’re just not real big guys and they’re not naturally great rebounders. I think we’ve got to get him rolling, too."

As the rest of the season plays out, Pitino will have to continue to rotate his big men. Walker has given the Gophers a spark on offense at times, while Eliason brings a better defensive presence. Yet in some cases, those two veterans — as well as King and Buggs — may see some of their minutes go to Minnesota’s freshmen big men as Pitino and the Gophers continue to build for the future.

"I think both guys are different," Pitino said of Konate and Diedhiou. "We’re trying to win games, that’s for sure. I think Bakary earned that playing time. Gas was getting there to earning that playing time. It’s just key in practice and getting those opportunities in games as well."

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