Andre Hollins played a great second half against Richmond.
Coming into the season a fragile balance still existed from last year’s impressive run to the NIT finals. Rodney Williams and Andre Hollins had newfound confidence, Austin Hollins had begun to transform into a key cog in the wheel, and Trevor Mbakwe, while healthy, was still recovering and needed to take things slow. The team needed confidence to open the season, but not results that provided a false sense. They needed legitimate challenges but not psyche-damaging results.
The scheduling gods have seemingly smiled on the Gophers as they head into the gauntlet that is the Battle 4 Atlantis. Their schedule has grown in intensity from a lowly Patriot League team to a decent A-10 team in the span of two weeks, allowing the Gophers to shake off the offseason rust in a fairly non-challenging environment, let players continue their success to build confidence and, most importantly, get Mbakwe back into game shape at his own pace. And, as luck would have it, they faced off against a good-but-not-great Richmond Spiders team that came at them from a different angle, challenged them on defense and poked holes in what the team though was a pretty suitable armor. With a matchup with Duke looming on Thanksgiving Day, being able to ramp up in opponent intensity and culminating with the best opponent yet is a gift.
Last year, for instance, Minnesota faced Mount St. Mary’s before heading down to the Old Spice Classic to take on DePaul. The polarization in quality of opponent was obvious and the Gophers struggled to put away a low-level BCS opponent before eking out a victory. Over the past couple of games, however, we’ve seen the Gophers take the increase in opponent in stride, run into some hurdles, and (hopefully) gain confidence by overcoming them. We’ll see soon enough.
Rodney Williams is who we thought he was – Perhaps one of the biggest and most important questions heading into this season was whether or not Williams could continue the success and strong play that he showcased during the run to the NIT championship game. It was during that run that we saw an entirely different Rodney Williams than we were accustomed to – one that was supremely confident, aggressive and effective. We’d seen flashes of it after he moved down to the block to replace an injured Trevor Mbakwe, but it was during the NIT run that Williams exploded and asserted himself as the team leader.
Now four games into the season it appears that the same Rodney has joined us for the 2012-13 season. He’s continued to be the team leader and has been the emotional and physical consistent that the Gophers have needed on both ends of the floor. Always a defensive powerhouse, Williams is now proving to be a consistent offensive threat too, and leading the team in points and rebounds. He’s even cleaned up his shot, hitting an impressive 74% from the field to begin the season. To boot, he’s scored in double figures in 13 straight games dating back to last season. Williams is a huge piece of the puzzle for Minnesota’s success this year, and we’ve been getting exactly what we’ve needed from him in the early going.
Andre Hollins finding his groove – Another piece to the Gopher success puzzle we’re hoping comes to fruition is the continued growth of Hollins. Like Williams, something clicked in down the stretch last year and he transformed into a completely different player almost overnight. The big question was if he actually turned the corner as a player and could put that type of effort into a whole season. Through the last two games he’s certainly looked the part, and provided the offensive spark that the Gophers needed against Richmond to get over the hump and into the win column.
Some of his effort is quantifiable, as he’s scored in double digits in back to back games while dishing out a nice number of assists. But he’s also shown an intangible quality recently that bodes well as we get deeper into the season. He’s showing a controlled chaos where he pushes the tempo, either in transition or in the half-court, attacking the basket without being reckless. It’s the same quality that we loved about Devoe Joseph and what we wished Chip Armelin would’ve shown more consistently, except Andre is more dangerous when he’s executing to his full potential. Against Richmond, for instance, he pulled the team out of a funk at the best possible time in the second half, scoring seven points in under a minute and a half and single-handedly turned the game around. It’s that type of game-altering quality that we both want and need from Hollins.
More Trevore Mbakwe minutes – So far, so good. And frankly, what was expected. Mbakwe has slowly but surely established himself as the season wears on and continues to gain confidence in his knee and physical capabilities. In fact, he played a season-high 27 minutes against Richmond on Sunday and made a significant impact on the game. We knew there would be an arc of recovery for Mbakwe, but it was impossible to just how smoothly it would go. We’re experiencing the best-case scenario at this point – he’s healthy, confident and, above all, effective. Let’s not take for granted that having all three of those components is a major bonus this early in the season.
Julian Welch and Oto Osenieks MIA – Paging Oto and Julian … Osenieks can’t buy a bucket to save his life and Welch’s minutes have been so non-descript that I can barely remember even seeing him on the court. While we haven’t been forced to lean too heavily on the bench yet this season, it’s distressing and puzzling that we’ve seen such a lack of success from our backups. Welch and Osenieks are the prime example.
Welch’s lack of playing time has coincided with Andre Hollins’ rise to stardom, so it’s at least more explicable. His precipitous decline in output, however, is troubling. So far this season he’s shooting only 25% and has scored only 11 points … total. And he looks slow out there. Real slow.
The Osenieks case is another head scratcher. Not that he was expected to be a game changer, but he’s shooting so incredibly poorly that he found himself with only five minutes of playing time in the Richmond game. He played sporadic minutes last year as well so it might just be a microcosm, but his 0-8 stat line from deep so far this season certainly doesn’t bode well for his prospects in the immediate future. The crux of Minnesota’s attack lies in having a deep, effective bench. This allows them to push the tempo and rely more on their backups to carry some of the weight. So far, though, the bench has been largely ineffective in extended minutes.
One word: Turnovers – The last two games haven’t been particularly pretty from an offensive standpoint. The Gophers have put on a clinic when it comes to defense but, wow, the offense is still a work in progress. Now, that’s not to say that the Gophers are far from where they need to be, and they have looked good for the most part, but the amount of boneheaded turnovers against Tennessee State and Richmond were almost mind-boggling. Against Richmond in particular, it wasn’t even like the Spiders were playing aggressive defense. Minnesota effectively gift-wrapped the ball and handed it over while Lewis Jackson Jr. ran down the court and racked up points off turnovers.
Again, it’s nice to have a few ramp-up games before facing superior competition like what awaits the Gophers in the Bahamas, because teams like Duke would have put the game far out of reach right away with the way Minnesota protected the ball against Richmond. 10 turnovers in the first 12 minutes will spell death against almost any BCS-tier team this season. Let’s just hope the team is just going through some sort of adolescent, angst-y phase right now.
Tag(s): Gopher Basketball