MINNEAPOLIS — First-year Gophers coach Rich Pitino said Tuesday’s game against Florida State will be the toughest test his team has had so far this year. Considering the wringer they just went through in the Maui Invitational, that’s a bold statement.
Minnesota played three games in three days in Hawaii, beginning with a Top 10 team in Syracuse. While the Gophers hung close with the Orange for most of the game, Syracuse eventually pulled away for a 75-67 win. Pitino’s squad didn’t have much time to prepare for their next opponent, an athletic Arkansas team that topped Minnesota 87-73.
While the Gophers finally beat Chaminade by 15 points in their final game of the tournament, the win didn’t come easy. Pitino’s team is now 6-2 on the year after going 1-2 in Maui, but showed outsiders that it can compete with some of the better teams in college basketball.
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“I do think that everybody says you learn a lot about your team in Maui. Really, the reason why everybody says that is you have no time to prepare,” Pitino said. “We had time to prepare for Syracuse. I thought we did a pretty good job of executing our game plan. Then you have to come right back and you have to play Arkansas at nine in the morning. It really becomes all about your players then, and all about what you’ve worked on from Day 1. It exposed us a little bit that we’ve got to get better.”
Now Minnesota prepares to face a Seminoles squad that has had an even tougher nonconference slate of games than the Gophers have. Florida State beat No. 10 VCU by 19 points before losing by two in overtime to No. 14 Michigan. Just after Thanksgiving, FSU faced in-state rival Florida but lost to the 15th-ranked Gators by a point on a last-second free throw in Gainesville.
Pitino compared Florida State to the Syracuse team the Gophers faced in the first round of the Maui Invitational in that the Seminoles are athletic and will have the size advantage over Minnesota. Helping the Gophers’ case in that area, though, is the return of center Mo Walker, who missed the first six games of the year due to a suspension for violating team rules. Walker returned for the second game of the Maui Invitational against Arkansas but was admittedly rusty. The 6-foot-10 redshirt junior bounced back to score 10 points and grab seven rebounds in the win against Chaminade.
When Walker was serving his suspension, the Gophers’ frontcourt was extremely thin. If big man Elliott Eliason got into foul trouble, Minnesota had to play small. The Gophers will need Walker on Tuesday night against a Florida State team that plays two 7-footers and three forwards 6-foot-8 or taller.
“He’s going to play major minutes,” Pitino said of Walker. “You talk about starting Elliott or him, I don’t see much of a difference. Mo’s just got to continue to get in great shape. But he’s going to help us, there’s no doubt about that. In a game with a thin frontcourt, we needed him.”
Walker slimmed down this offseason, losing around 60 pounds to get into good enough shape to play in Pitino’s uptempo system. Seldom used last year — just 6.6 minutes per game — Walker showed signs of progress in the Gophers’ exhibition games before serving his suspension.
After watching from the bench for six games, Walker has finally gotten the chance he’s been waiting for. He averaged 13.5 minutes in the final two games in Maui as he’s back on the court with the teammates who supported him during his suspension.
“I was trying to be pretty motivating for my team, cheering them on as much as I could, doing whatever I could to try to help them out, whether it was just being on the bench, being supportive or working out in practice,” Walker said. “Coach said, ‘It’s not about you anymore. It’s about the team. Do what you’ve got to do to make us better.’ That’s what I’ve put all my time, energy and effort into.”
Now Walker and the Gophers will have another tough tall task on Tuesday night at Williams Arena in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Pitino noted in his blog that Florida State could easily be a Top 15 team if the Seminoles’ two narrow losses went the other way.
Regardless of rankings, Minnesota knows it can make a statement with a win Tuesday.
“I love our conference, but we’re not giving a ‘Do it for the Big Ten’ speech,” Pitino said in regards to the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. “I just want to beat Florida State. . . . This is going to be as tough a game as we’ve played.”