Gophers men’s basketball itching for initial test

MINNEAPOLIS — After practicing together since the summer, members of the Minnesota men’s basketball team are tired of playing against themselves. They’re ready for some outside competition.

Indeed, Richard Pitino’s team is ready to show the world the new-look Gophers.

“They are sick of each other, you can tell it,” Pitino said Monday at his first media day as Minnesota’s head coach. “I’m sick of watching them against each other. I think it’ll be good when they play on Friday. They’re all excited about it. What happens when they have a calendar and when they see a game at the end of the week, they get much more fired up for practice.”

Friday is Minnesota’s first of two exhibition game of the season as the Gophers host Cardinal-Stritch at Williams Arena. While a lot of the faces will be the same, there are plenty of newcomers on this year’s squad. That of course includes the 31-year-old Pitino, who took the job this offseason after just one year at the helm at Florida International.

Addressing a roomful of reporters and TV cameras on Monday, Pitino noted there have already been plenty of noticeable differences between coaching a Big Ten team and coaching an FIU program mired in academic troubles and struggling to garner fan support.

“At FIU you would walk in and it was me, my three assistant coaches and my (basketball operations) guy. We had no secretary. We had no (graduate assistants). I think we had one manager,” Pitino said. “Probably the amount of people in this room was about our first game. But that’s just the reality of it. Now the thing that makes this place special is people care. They love it. They want to support the program.”

Along with Pitino, Minnesota welcomes four new scholarship players, including three transfers (Joey King, Deandre Mathieu and Malik Smith) and one freshman (Daquein McNeil). Also new to the team is walk-on freshman Jasen Baranowski.

The Gophers lost two of their top players from a season ago with the graduation of forwards Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams. They return seven letterwinners and two starters in guards Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins.

Yet with so much turnover over the offseason, Minnesota’s players insist the chemistry has taken place naturally — and quickly.

“Once we start practice and we’re around each other all the time, we live together. It just happens when you’re always together,” said Andre Hollins. “I think the culture in Minnesota, we’re like a family. When new people came in, a new coaching staff, we all got together and we accepted each other. It’s like a brotherhood. I think that’s the culture here, and I love it.”

Minnesota had a public scrimmage earlier this month, but Friday will be the first time for fans to see what the Pitino-led Gophers look like. The uptempo style of play will encourage Minnesota’s guards to push the ball — while still attempting to limit turnovers. Defensively, there will be plenty of pressing and plenty of ball pressure.

Once the players adjusted to the tempo in practice, they’ve gotten to enjoy the new style. Of course, it required plenty of conditioning in the offseason. In the case of players such as forward Mo Walker, who dropped 60 pounds to get into playing shape, losing weight was a byproduct.

Pitino hopes it will all translate to a faster brand of basketball, a trademark of the young head coach.

“The biggest change is the energy and conditioning,” said Andre Hollins. “You have to be energetic to play this brand of basketball. I’m really enjoying it right now.”

Given the amount of turnover Minnesota’s roster and coaching staff experienced, national pundits aren’t giving the Gophers much of a chance to compete for a Big Ten title this season. Those prognostications come despite the Gophers making it to the NCAA Tournament last year under then-coach Tubby Smith and actually winning a first-round game.

Of course, the Gophers aren’t paying much attention to the outside opinions. They believe in the product Pitino is trying to assemble, and Pitino has them believing in each other.

“I think we can be great. We’ve just got to keep working. We’ve worked extremely hard to get to this point where we are,” said Austin Hollins. “Where publications have put us is out of our hands. We have a lot of new guys. We lost three of our starters, so we don’t deserve to be rated highly. We just have to use it as motivation and play hard.”

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