Newcomer Deandre Mathieu shows Gophers’ new up-tempo ways

MINNEAPOLS — New coach Richard Pitino wants to play a quick, up-tempo style with the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team, with an emphasis on pressure defense.

No one exemplified the philosophy during Friday’s open scrimmage Friday better than newcomer Deandre Mathieu.

Mathieu was the fastest player on the floor and scored a game-high 26 points to go with two assists and three steals on Friday. With 16 points in the second half, Mathieu nearly led his “Gold” team to a comeback against the “Maroon” squad, which was filled with the holdovers from last year’s Minnesota team coached by Tubby Smith.

“He showed us some stuff tonight he hasn’t been doing in practice,” Andre Hollins said. “I guess he saved it in his pocket for everybody else to see. Of course, he’s a really great player. He had 26 (points) tonight. I’m kind of shooting myself in the head with that one because I was guarding him. So, I guess I have to pick my defense up a little bit more. We’re excited to have Dre as part of the team.”

Mathieu, a junior from Central Arizona College this season, was 8-of-11 from the field, hit his two 3-point attempts and was 8-of-10 from the free-throw line.

At 5-foot-9, Mathieu doesn’t have the size typical of Big Ten basketball players, but his speed gives him an advantage.

“As a little guy I have no choice but to be high energy,” Mathieu said. “If I’m slow and I’m small, I have no chance.”

Mathieu is on his third college, coming out of Knoxville, Tenn. He spent his freshman season at Morehead State and averaged 2.9 points and 1.5 assists per game. Last year with Central Arizona College, he was named a National Junior College Athletic Association first-team All-American and averaged 18.1 points and 6.5 assists per game, and even at his size added 6.1 rebounds a game.

Pitino, in his first season with Minnesota, saw Mathieu’s speed and felt the diminutive guard fit perfectly for the style Pitino wants to run with the Gophers.

“Coach Pitino when he recruited me, he told me, ‘We’re going to play fast and you’re one of the fastest I’ve seen,'” Mathieu said. “I guess, playing fast is me. Like I said earlier, I have to be fast or I’ll be in trouble most of the time. The system really fits me because all we’re doing is pressing and running.”

Pitino hasn’t decided on a starting lineup for the season-opener on Nov. 8 against LeHigh, but said Mathieu could find his way into the starting lineup.

“He’s really good,” Pitino said. “He’s one of those guys where when we saw him play when we got the job, we just thought that he was a fit for the way that we like to play; so quick, he’s so aggressive and he showed that tonight.”

Minnesota returns three starters from last season in guard Andre Hollins, swingman Austin Hollins and center Elliott Eliason. Pitino said he can see Andre and Austin Hollins, Eliason, Mathieu, Oto Osenieks, Maverick Ahanmisi, Maurice Walker, Malik Smith and Joey King all possibly starting.

Malik Smith is another newcomer for the Gophers, having played under Pitino at Florida International. Smith didn’t have the same success as Mathieu. He was 1-of-15 shooting and had eight turnovers, but Pitino said he doesn’t worry about Smith.

“Malik had eight turnovers and Malik Smith will do that to you,” Pitino said. “Only we can accept that because he’d have some games at FIU where he’s 1 for 10 from 3, but I have unbelievable faith from him when it comes time to hit the big shot. That’s what I love about him, because he believes in himself and he’ll come back the next game and he’ll have seven, eight 3s. That’s just what makes him great.”

Maroon ended up winning the intrasquad scrimmage 61-53 behind 21 points from Austin Hollins, 16 points from Osenieks and 12 points from Ahanmisi. Austin Hollins was 8-of-10 shooting and was 4-of-6 from beyond the 3-point line.

“That’s just the type of player (Austin Hollins) is,” Pitino said. “He’s a very low-risk type of player, where Malik is different. Malik, there’s nights where he could go 1 for 10, 1 for 15, where Austin, I think he can consistently give us the same thing every single day because, I said it the other day, he’s a consummate pro. He just knows how to approach a game on a daily basis.”

Gophers fans also know all about Austin Hollins, one of three seniors. Mathieu was the surprise Friday and he showed just what Pitino hopes the fans can come to expect in style of play.

“The mindset was build our brand,” Mathieu said. “Coach wanted us to establish our brand of basketball, show the fans how we’re going to play. Let them see for themselves how Gophers basketball is going to be this year. “Probably a little bit different than last year, so he just wanted us to establish our brand.”

The brand works for Mathieu.

Follow Brian Hall on Twitter