Minnesota is breaking in a new coach in Richard Pitino this season. What are the early returns on his performance so far this season? Any shifts in philosophy Michigan fans should know about?
Early returns on Pitino are still rather flat, or at least unknown. People are excited about the new style of play and a more exciting brand of basketball at Williams Arena. But we are also winning and executing this new brand against (usually) weaker competition. When we get into the Big Ten schedule and start facing more talented teams, then we know a lot more. In my opinion we need a couple years to get a roster full of players who fit Pitino's system before we will get a real gauge on how well this will work. Overall I think people are happy with Pitino (again, recognizing that it is early) and there is optimism about the future of the program. The full-court pressing and the more offensively minded offense is certainly more enjoyable to watch.
Minnesota has two losses so far this season to Syracuse and Arkansas. Did those games expose any weaknesses this team has?
The Syracuse game was one that could be classified as a "good loss." We played well against a top-5 team and it was a 2-point game with 2 minutes to go. Some critical turnovers down the stretch cost Minnesota the game but it was an encouraging loss. The next day was an ugly loss to Arkansas where we turned the ball over and really didn't do any of the things necessary to win. My excuse generator says it was a hangover after putting everything into the Syracuse game the day before. But whatever the reason, it was a bad loss and the team has played much better after that (OK after the 1st half of the Chaminade game, THEN we started playing better). That trip to Maui was followed by hosting Florida State which was a nice win.
How has Minnesota done replacing two good frontcourt players in Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams so far this season? What are the new names to know up front?
We are very different in the frontcourt. Rebounding has still been OK, this was my primary concern after losing two very good rebounders. Our KenPom rebounding percentages are solid, but this primarily has been a team effort rather than relying on a guy like Mbakwe to clean the glass. Scoring wise, we are not a team that will beat most teams with interior scoring. Joey King and Oto Osenieks rotate at the power forward spot and they more more shooters than they are bangers. Elliott Eliason is still at center, he rebounds well and is solid in the middle. The strength and athleticism from last year is replaced by shooting and toughness. A very different frontcourt, the primary concern for this season and so far the results have been fairly positive. Florida State's big and athletic frontcourt was probably the Gopher's biggest interior test and they did alright. The Seminoles pounded the ball in the paint where they scored 30 points, but only 5 points allowed off offensive rebounds, overall rebounding was fairly even and the Gophers won by 10. Rebounding from the power forward is still an issue but the rest of the team is doing what it can to pick up the slack.
The Hollins's are back and running things in the backcourt. Have either of their roles/production changed this season? Who else should Michigan fans know about in the Minnesota backcourt?
Andre and Austin are the heart and soul of this team combining for about 30 points and 11 rebounds per game. Both recently crossed the 1,000 career points mark. Andre is dynamic and a very good scorer, no change here. He has a green light, he is playing off-guard rather than point this year and has been pretty productive. Austin does everything well. He passes well, he defends well, he is a good shooter and is second on the team in rebounding. These guys are natural fits for Pitino's new system on both ends of the floor. Another guy to add to the mix is Deandre Mathieu at point. He is 5-9 and lightening quick. Mathieu is able to get into the lane almost whenever he wants and is able knock down open threes. The JUCO transfer is third on the team in scoring at 11.5 ppg. He is fun to watch and was a nice late addition to the roster.
Kenpom has this game as a two point Minnesota win, but that doesn't take into account the absence of Mitch McGary for Michigan. What do you think the keys are for a Gopher victory and what is your prediction for the game?
Turnovers and rebounding are always the key to the game for Minnesota. It is a possession game for them. Don't turn it over, turn over the other team with their full-court press and then finish possessions with a rebound so you don't give the other team a chance to shoot again. This team can score in bunches and it can also give it up in bunches. With time to prepare, I do not fear any team's zone (Michigan) but I do fear Michigan's shooters and I recognize that they really don't turn the ball over very much. We need to force turnovers, if we don't we have to out-shoot (% not total shots) our opponent. Michigan doesn't turn it over and most nights we won't shoot a higher percentage. KenPom is giving a nice home bump to the Gophers, but I would put my money on Michigan to win a close one here.