If you haven’t seen this Minnesota Golden Gophers team play, you’re missing out. They’re a fun and up-tempo, high energy group that really gets after it. And I don’t think they’ve played their best basketball just yet.
After last season came to a close in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, the school chose to part ways with the widely respected and well liked Tubby Smith. In Smith’s six years, he turned the program into an NCAA tourney contender each year, qualifying three times and finishing runner-up in the NIT one season as well. But Minnesota Athletic Director Norwood Teague desired for more. He wanted to take this program to even greater heights and didn’t feel Tubby was the man to do that. So, he went on to hire 31-year-old Richard Pitino, who, of course, is the son of legendary college basketball coach Rick Pitino. The firing of Smith and hiring of Pitino was initially met with a lot of confusion and uncertainty.
But so far so good. The younger Pitino has greatly exceeded expectations and the Gophers are out to a 15-5 (4-3 Big 10) start behind the terrific guard play of Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins, Deandre Mathieu and Malik Smith. This tremendous start includes wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin, and a near upset win in East Lansing against the Michigan State Spartans. I’m sure not too many people expected this out of the Gophers.
The guard play is the major reason why this team is continuing to win big games; it has them in great position to be a contender in the Big 10 race. Andre is ridiculously underrated; the guy averages nearly 16 per night and is exceptional in creating space to get his shot. Austin is the son of a coach — former Memphis Grizzlies head man Lionel Hollins. Austin is your ideal senior — he akes smart, winning plays and can go both inside and out. Mathieu is lightning quick with the ball, maybe the quickest player I’ve seen in all of college basketball this season. And don’t let his 5-foot-9 (if that) frame fool you. He can get to the rim at will and throw it down with authority. In my opinion, Smith is the x-factor to this team’s success. Smith is a senior who transferred to Minnesota from Florida International to stay with coach Pitino. While the other three guards start, Smith comes off the bench and provides instant offense. He shoots nearly 40 percent from three.
I really like this Gophers team and think they have the potential to surprise a lot of people come tournament time in March. The guard play is certainly good enough. If they can get some solid, consistent play from their bigs, look out.
Matthew Sturgeon is a College Basketball Writer for RantSports.com. He covers the Big 10 Conference. You can follow him on Twitter @OfficialSturg27