MINNEAPOLIS — Mired in a three-game losing streak, the Gophers men’s basketball team hopes to shake things up by making a change to its starting lineup.
Head coach Richard Pitino said Friday that sophomore Joey King will start at power forward for Saturday’s game against Indiana, moving junior Oto Osenieks to the bench. Osenieks had started all 23 of Minnesota’s games to this point, but Pitino felt King’s recent performance has earned him the opportunity to start.
"I think Joey is practicing very well. I think that he’s showing great enthusiasm, playing confident offensively," Pitino said. "He’s battling. In that Purdue game, he was probably the only guy that matched their physicality, took their hits. He was strong with the ball. And I think it’s just something that’s needed, a little change. We’ve lost three in a row, why not switch something up?"
King had arguably his best game of the season on Wednesday in Minnesota’s triple overtime loss at Purdue. He scored 14 points — his first double-digit output in Big Ten play — and grabbed nine rebounds while also adding three assists in a career-high 47 minutes.
Osenieks, meanwhile, played just eight minutes against the Boilermakers and was held scoreless. He’s averaging 6.6 points this season, easily the most during his time at Minnesota. Yet while Osenieks will now come off the bench for the Gophers, Pitino noted that Minnesota will still need production from him at the power forward spot.
"I don’t think it’s as much Oto as it is Joey," Pitino said of the change. "I just think Joey is playing with unbelievable enthusiasm and effort in practice and during the games. It doesn’t mean that Oto’s going to be shelved. Certainly, we need Oto. We’ll just see how it looks. Three games in a row justifies (a change). We’ll see what else is working."
It may be a bit premature to call Saturday’s game against the Hoosiers a "must-win" scenario for Minnesota, but the Gophers could certainly use a victory to stop the bleeding. After a win over No. 9 Wisconsin last month that looked impressive at the time, Minnesota dropped a game on the road to Nebraska before a gut wrenching one-point loss at home to Northwestern. Pitino felt his team played better earlier this week at Purdue, but the end result was the same as it was the previous two games.
Despite Minnesota’s season-high three-game losing streak, Pitino and his players say the morale of the team remains high entering Saturday’s contest.
"I don’t think confidence is a problem," said center Mo Walker, who scored 17 points against Purdue. "I just think we just need to do the little things to put us over the top. We lost a couple tight ones. Just little things like rebounding, getting loose balls, not fouling and the whole result of the game could have changed."
One thing that did change last game for Minnesota was Andre Hollins returning to the lineup. The Gophers’ leading scorer missed almost the entire game against Wisconsin after suffering a sprained ankle early in the first half, and he proceeded to sit out against Nebraska and Northwestern. Hollins wasn’t expected to make his return until this Saturday but he came back a game early from the ankle injury.
In his first game back, Hollins played 36 minutes but was just 3-of-14 from the floor as he scored eight points in the loss. Minnesota needs Hollins down the home stretch of Big Ten play, and that includes Saturday’s game against Indiana.
"He didn’t look affected at all until the overtime. That’s where I noticed, ‘OK, he’s on his last legs a little bit,’" Pitino said of Hollins’ return against Purdue. "We need a healthy Andre Hollins."
In the wide-open Big Ten, the Gophers remain in the thick of things even after their three-game skid that has dropped them to 4-6 in conference play. A win Saturday would leapfrog Minnesota over Indiana (4-5) in the standings and help give the Gophers a bit of confidence after this rough stretch.
"I think our guys yesterday in practice were really positive," Pitino said. "I’m happy with their mindset. I think they believe that we’re close — and we are close. We’ve got to make sure we get better, but I hopefully think we’ve got some good basketball left."