Preview: Pitino’s Gophers eager to defy preseason predictions

Minnesota will need better consistency all around in 2015-16. Last year, Richard Pitino's squad finished a disappointing 18-15, including a 2-7 mark in Big Ten road games.

Mike Carter/Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino recently told reporters he likes where his team is heading.

Minnesota’s 2015-16 roster is largely youthful, but Pitino is confident the young Gophers won’t be wandering around aimlessly.

"I’m really excited about where we’re headed," Pitino told the Associated Press. "I think we’ve got really good, young talent."

Yes, the Maroon and Gold feature six freshmen this season, but there are leaders among the team’s returnees, too. Chief among those key upperclassmen is senior guard Carlos Morris, who averaged 11.1 points per game last winter.

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"He’s cutting down the mistakes," Pitino said of Morris, the club’s top returning scorer, during the Big Ten’s annual media day. "I hope he will have a much better year this year."

Minnesota will need better consistency all around in 2015-16. Last year, Pitino’s squad finished a disappointing 18-15, including a 2-7 mark in Big Ten road games. Even with veterans like guard Andre Hollins still around last season, the Gophers shot just 67.2 percent from the free-throw line, too.

The other blemish on last season’s resume: Minnesota got outrebounded by nearly three per game. Thus, Pitino seeks greater physicality from his club in the coming months.

The Gophers don’t have an abundance of big men this season, but the hope is senior power forward Joey King can up his rebounding production in his final collegiate campaign, up from the 3.0 boards he averaged last season. Sophomore Gaston Diedhiou, a forward from Dakar, Senegal, also has the look of an emerging post threat. Sophomore center Bakary Konate could also evolve into a legitimate presence down low.

"If (Diedhiou and Konate) can stay out of foul trouble and find a way to stay on the court, I think they’ll be very productive," said Pitino, 33, who recently signed a two-year contract extension through the 2020-21 season.

Sophomore Nate Mason, who averaged 9.8 points per game last season, will lead a backcourt featuring lots of youth. First-year guard Dupree McBrayer figures to see action, as well. McBrayer, a 6-foot-4 native of Queens, N.Y., had four steals last Friday night, in Minnesota’s exhibition rout of Southwest Minnesota State.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much margin for error for the Gophers this winter. The Big Ten is loaded once more, with six teams landing in the Associated Press’ preseason top-25 poll: Maryland (No. 3), Michigan State (13), Indiana (15), Wisconsin (17), Purdue (23) and Michigan (25). The Gophers are predicted to make a lower-division finish in the conference by multiple media outlets.

Pitino’s bunch opens its regular season Friday, against Missouri-Kansas City at 8 p.m. in Williams Arena. The Big Ten gauntlet begins with a Dec. 30 trip to Ohio State.

"The guys are ready for the season to get here," Pitino noted last Friday. "So I know they are excited."

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