Trouncing of Wofford made easy by dominant outing by Gophers' big men
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By Patrick Donnelly
MINNEAPOLIS -- There won't be many nights this year when the Gophers have a size advantage to exploit, but Thursday night was one of them.
The Wofford Terriers visited Williams Arena, bringing with them a collection of small guards and shooting forwards and slashers and swingmen, but nary a post player among them. Their starting lineup went 6-foot-7, 6-6, 6-4, 6-2 and 5-11. Two 6-8 guys came off the bench for a total of 15 minutes. That's about it.
Thanks to that size differential, one might expect the Gophers' big men to have a big night against the Terriers. And they did, leading the way to a 79-57 victory over their Southern Conference opponents.
Elliott Eliason blocked a career-high seven shots, grabbed 11 rebounds, scored 11 points and hit 5 of 8 field goal attempts. Oto Osenieks surpassed his previous career high (set Tuesday night) with 14 points on 6-for-11 shooting and grabbed five boards. Austin Hollins continued his rebounding surge this year with eight more boards to go with a team-high 18 points, also on 6-for-11 shooting.
That's 43 points, 24 rebounds and 10 blocked shots on 17-for-30 shooting for Minnesota's often-undersized front line. Not a bad night's work.
You're only left to wonder how badly the Gophers could have exploited that advantage had the suspended Mo Walker and injured Joey King been available to play.
"To do that without two guys who are going to play major, major minutes," coach Richard Pitino said, "and to do it with all the type of odd lineups that we played with tonight - I mean, Oto played the 5. That's tough to do because he never practices at the 5. It's not like we had three days to prepare him. He only had one day to prepare, and that shows his basketball IQ."
Osenieks did indeed play the center spot when Eliason was on the bench, which wasn't often given the big man played 31 minutes on the night. That's 65 minutes over the course of 49 hours (counting Tuesday's win over Coastal Carolina) for Eliason, who has averaged 15.2 minutes per game in his Gophers career.
"I knew I was in good shape but I didn't know I was in that good of shape," Eliason said. "Being able to keep that tempo up is great for the confidence."
Confidence is the key word related to Osenieks' play as well. The 6-8 forward, who so often looked lost in Tubby Smith's system, has stepped into the starting lineup and is thriving under Pitino.
"At first I had to get to know his system, but he told me he has a pick-and-pop for shooters which I would play so I kind of knew that would be my role and I would benefit from that," Osenieks said of adapting to Pitino's system. "The four-man plays outside a lot and sets a lot of screens and picks and pops and stretches the floor. I feel comfortable doing that."
He certainly looked comfortable early as the Gophers scored on their first five possessions and took a 13-0 lead. Osenieks scored on a drive to the hoop and a spot-up 3-pointer from the left wing, then later drained a mid-range jumper and scored off an offensive rebound. He added a silky bank shot for good measure later in the half as the Gophers built a 50-24 cushion at the break.
"I just love the confidence he's playing with right now," Pitino said. "I keep telling him, don't worry about anything but that you play aggressively and he's showing that."
Staying aggressive helped, but it's always easier to have your way when you've got three to four inches on your guy. But even little DeAndre Mathieu - generously listed at 5-9 - slipped inside the lane for an offensive rebound and a put-back layup in the second half. It was just that kind of night for the Gophers.
It could have turned out differently had the players succumbed to the dull atmosphere and the half-empty arena that greeted them for warmups. Thanks to a number of factors -- icy roads, an early start, a game finally being televised on the Big Ten Network -- the crowd was late to arrive and probably peaked at about 50 percent capacity on the night.
"I really believe it's harder to play these games than it is at Richmond, or a Syracuse in Maui, because we don't have to get them excited for those games," Pitino said. "You come out here, earlier start, it was kind of a late-arriving crowd with people coming from work or whatever, you've got to get it from within. I told the guys before the game, 'This is like one of those days where you know you've got practice but you don't really want to play. You have to get it from within.'"
You couldn't blame the players for looking past Wofford with a trip to Hawaii and a date with No. 9 Syracuse on the horizon. But the Gophers started out red-hot and kept the pedal down, racing out to a 24-2 lead and shooting 70.8 percent (17-for-24) from the floor in the first half.
"It was a tough game. That environment, everybody's usually thinking about Maui already, thinking about what's going to happen in the future and you forget to focus on the now," Osenieks said. "So we had to really focus for today's game, not think about the future, get this out of the way."
King on the mend
King suffered a broken jaw in a collision with Andre Hollins and a Coastal Carolina player on Tuesday night. He didn't dress for Thursday's game, but Pitino was hopeful that King will be able to play on Monday against Syracuse in Maui.
"He's such a tough kid," Pitino said. "I see him and he's holding an icepack to his cheek and I say, 'How you feeling?' 'Oh, I'm feeling great!' He doesn't look great, but that's what he does."
With King in street clothes, Wofford actually had more Minnesotans available than the Gophers did. The Terriers gave 6-foot-7 sophomore C.J. Neumann his first start of the season. Neumann, a Cretin-Derham Hall graduate, scored six points and grabbed two boards in 28 minutes in front of his hometown fans.
Patrick Donnelly covers Gophers men's basketball for ESPN1500.com. Follow him on Twitter at @donnelly612.