The Syracuse Orange basketball team takes on its first major conference foe this season when it tips against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at 5:30 p.m. ET in the 2013 Maui Invitational. Last time we spent some time getting to know Minny, it was their football team. Now we need to learn a bit about their basketball counterparts and that Pitino fellow leading them. We turn to the guys at From The Barn to help get us up to speed (and here's my answers to their Q's).
We're not really big fans of Pitinos. How's yours working out so far?
After a few years of Tubby Ball (which revived the Gophers basketball program and put them back on the map) things got a little stagnant, so having Pitino at the helm so far has been refreshing. We’re seeing a marked difference in tempo and a new approach to offense. Where Smith’s teams were slow and methodical, relying on a bruising interior and careful shot selection, Pitino’s team is very much centered on shooting prowess and harassing defense. It’s very early in his tenure and we’ve only seen five games out of the guy, so it’s hard to draw many conclusions, but so far he’s definitely lived up to his billing as someone who runs a fun team. And for a program that underwent a huge turnover from last year, being comfortably 5-0 at this point is a welcome accomplishment.
The Gophers are undefeated but haven't really been tested too much. How has the team done in terms of meeting expectations so far?
In losing two of our best players (Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe) and, essentially, last year’s identity it’s hard to set expectations this year. Couple that with a new, fairly unproven coach, and determining where this team should be at this point is difficult at best. Now, this IS a Big Ten program, so anything less than a 5-0 start at this point would have been a disappointment. But I wasn’t ready to assume we’d just go on the road to Richmond and walk away with a victory, which has been the highlight of the year so far. For a team with several newcomers and an injury and suspension already at hand, I just want to see some cohesiveness and the ability to face adversity without imploding. Winning a true road game against a good A-10 team is a great start, and handling the low-majors with ease at least gives us an idea of what the team is capable of. Syracuse will be a great test in that regard. I don’t expect the Gophers to win, but if they can show enough spine to hang with the Orange throughout the game and not get rattled, that will be a major accomplishment.
The best way to beat the zone is for someone to go lights-out from three-point range. Who's most likely to do that?
The Gophers have been physical and inside-minded for the past few years, so it’s hard to really think of them as a shooting team. But that’s the identity Pitino has brought to the table and, truthfully, we have the personnel to really cause trouble for teams that give up open shots from outside. I can think of at least six guys on the team that you don’t want to leave open; even our power forwards are effective from three-point land. But the guys that will hurt teams the most are Andre Hollins and Malik Smith. Hollins is the star of the team and is a dynamic off-guard that can score in a couple ways. And if he gets hot then he can really do a lot of damage.
Smith is more of a specialist and followed Pitino from Florida International, where he set a school record last year with 96 3PM. He’s the definition of a "chucker", but he lives outside the three-point line and is confident in his shot. He’s still trying to find his identity as more of a role player, but he’s already attempted 29 threes this year out of 35 total shots from the field. He’s that guy who can go 8-10 from deep one night and then 1-9 the next.
Other than a deep-ball threat, who are the two guys SU needs to keep an eye on.
Hollins is our best player and he really does it all on both sides of the ball. In fact, he’s might be one of the best guards in the Big Ten. Another newcomer of ours, though, and a guy who has been fun to watch is Dre Mathieu. A JUCO transfer, he’s the first true point guard we’ve had in quite a while, so we’re excited about him. He’s a pest on defense, is deceptively fast and is adept at getting to the basket. And at 5’9", he actually plays a few inches taller than he actually is. His ability to drive has given Minnesota a new wrinkle in the offense, and he’s been effective and driving and dishing out to the wings for open shots. I’m excited to see him go up against major competition and really see what we have with him. He leads the team in steals and assists, and his effectiveness this year could be the difference in the Gophers being a tournament team or not.
What's the realistic hope for Minnesota this season? What's the goal?
With a new sheriff in town and plenty of new faces on the roster it’s really hard to gauge where this team is and where it should be going. Minnesota returns a veteran backcourt, so it’s not like we’re completely rebuilding from last year’s team, but without much of an inside presence I’m skeptical that they can really hang with the better teams in the Big Ten. My realistic hope and goal this year is to make the tournament in any capacity. If Pitino can come on board and mold this mishmash of characters into one of the 68 best teams in the country then I think that will be a major achievement and a great way to benchmark his future success. At the very least I think this team should be in the bubble conversation at the end of the year, and I’d be disappointed if they’re not.
Thanks to From The Barn for the info.