Stability and familiarity set in at Minnesota
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) In Richard Pitino's second season as Minnesota's coach, both he and the Gophers ought to be all the better for it.
The players know his strategy, his personality and his expectations. He has learned their strengths and weaknesses, grasped the culture of the state and the program and figured out the routines of the job.
''That fear of the unknown in year one is difficult,'' Pitino said.
So, after finishing 25-13 with an NIT championship last season, where do the Gophers go from here? That's obvious: the NCAA tournament.
The goal is attainable, even in a stacked Big Ten, if senior guards Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu can continue developing into elite conference players, a promising group of newcomers can contribute and the perimeter defense can improve.
The challenge will start immediately with the Nov. 14 season opener against Louisville in Puerto Rico.
''We got a big boost of confidence from that NIT run,'' Mathieu said.
Here are some notable story lines surrounding the Gophers as they start the season:
ABOUT THAT NIT: Winning the second-tier tournament gave the Gophers five bonus opportunities to develop against decent opponents, play at the famed Madison Square Garden and test their mettle in an elimination setting.
But the NIT title banner that will hang at Williams Arena won't warrant a ceremony or boost ticket sales. It was, after all, the NIT.
''Nobody knows how to handle it. Do you brag about it? Do you talk about it?'' Pitino said. ''They were certainly very proud of it. But that's not the goal to be in the NIT, and I think everybody in the locker room knows that. And it's good in the sense of we know what kept us out of the NCAA tournament, and we know what won us the NIT. So that carryover, I hope, is there.''
FAMILY MATTER: The Louisville game will be nationally televised and played at a U.S. Coast Guard base against a prominent opponent. Oh, and there's that other little detail that might draw some attention: father against son.
Louisville is coached by Rick Pitino, Richard Pitino's biological and professional mentor.
''Everybody is going to make a big deal out of me versus my dad and all that,'' Richard Pitino said. ''When the game starts, it's not me versus my dad. It's two teams going against each other.''
It's also an opportunity for greater exposure.
''That's the biggest thing in all of sports: How strong is your brand? Well, now they're going to talk about Minnesota on the first day in college basketball,'' Pitino said.
HEALTHY HOLLINS: Hollins sprained his left ankle in late January and never fully recovered until the summer. His points-per-game averages were 16.2 before the injury and 11.3 after it.
''He's back now. He's Andre Hollins again. He's explosive. He's not just settling for jump shots,'' Mathieu said.
NEW FACES: Four newcomers are eligible to play this season, and they're all on track to contribute.
Junior college transfer Carlos Morris and Daquein McNeil are in a close competition for the starting spot at the ''3'' position. Morris is a 6-foot-5, 175-pound speedster with the nickname ''Squirrel.''
Of the three freshmen, Nate Mason is in line to play the most as the likely backup to Mathieu and Hollins. Josh Martin and Bakary Konate will add depth to the front court, behind Joey King, Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason.
''Josh and Bakary have got great potential, but Nate is the guy right away who's most ready the most. You find that a lot I think with guards,'' Pitino said.
MO-MENTUM: Walker was last season's breakout player after losing more than 50 pounds at Pitino's demand so his 6-foot-10 frame could keep up with the faster pace of play. Though Eliason was the primary starter at the ''5'' position, Walker is on track to pass him for more playing time.
''I'd lie to you if I said it wasn't anything but sweet,'' Walker said of his emergence, which featured six double-digit scoring performances in a 12-game conference stretch. ''But this year, hopefully I can improve on that, and hopefully as a team we can improve on what we did last year.''