What kind of Gopher basketball will we see this year at the Barn, or for that matter anywhere this season?
“I always hope that we will be one of the most competitive playing teams in the country, a team that is going to get better every single day,” responded Men’s Basketball Coach Richard Pitino.
“I think we certainly are a step closer to [how] we want to look. I think ultimately we are a couple more years away from being completely where we want to be…in terms of our system and style,” added second-year Women’s Basketball Coach Marlene Stollings, who stressed that “more guard play” will be seen this season. “We like a four guard-one post lineup. You win at this level with guards,” she reiterated.
Guard Rachel Banham said the Gophers should be seen as a team that outworks its opponents “whether the team is ranked number-one in the nation or last.”
Both Minnesota squads opened their respective 2015-16 season Friday in a rare home doubleheader, and both teams came away with a win. The women played Wofford, and the men played against University of Missouri Kansas City. Next up: The men play Louisiana-Monroe this Sunday and the women play Maine next Friday.
As expected, both Minnesota teams have high hopes and aspirations as regular season play begins, even to play deep into March next year. However, save for a few instances over the years, as this longtime Gopher beat reporter has witnessed first-hand, season optimism will eventually be realized into post-season reality.
After a season in which team records were set in points, field goals, shot attempts, three-point attempts and makes, assists and blocks, the Gophers women return three starters from last season’s 23-10 club. The most important returnee experience-wise is Banham, a fifth-year senior who missed all but 10 games last season due to a knee injury.
Banham “looks ready to go,” said Coach Stollings. The 5-9 guard from Lakeville, Minn. told the MSR, “I feel that I am super ready for games.”
Although sitting out wasn’t in the plans, Stollings told us the time she was forced to sit in street clothes last season allowed Banham to see “the game from a completely different perspective than she has in her entire life.”
The guard agreed: “I think I’ve grown over these last four years. I am way more mature than I came in as,” said Banham.
As a result, Banham has become a vocal leader on the team, continued her coach. Noted Stollings, “I think that her voice is one of her improvements as part of her game. She was quieter last year.
“Rachel isn’t one of our loudest players. She’s one of the leaders who led by example. We are seeing her voice this year. She’s holding her teammates accountable.”
Banham admitted she likes being a leader: “Knowing that this year is officially my last year and [knowing] that everyone looks towards me… I actually enjoy it,” said the senior guard. “People are naturally looking to me as that leader and I’ve got to fill it and step up into it.”
Without a seasoned post player, the Gopher women this season will look on the court this season, but Stollings expects them to play big.
“Our rebounding has to come from our guards,” she pointed out, as the team lost Shae Kelley (nine rebounds a game) and Amanda Zahui B. (just under 13 caroms) to the WNBA. Therefore the coach set a game-by-game goal for any back-court performer playing at least half the game to grab “six-plus rebounds.”
On the flip side, the Gopher men might be the smallest in recent history. But Pitino wants a shot-blocking team but quickly points out, “You can’t get away with playing small in the Big Ten.”
Therefore, Minnesota has 12 non-conference contests by which the coach hopes 6-11 sophomore center Bakary Konate will be back at full strength — the young man is battling a foot injury but hopes to return to action soon. “We need him,” admitted his coach.
But after watching the Gophers in their two exhibition games, one can see their reliance on quickness may only go so far. Their guard play isn’t at top form yet but Pitino is high on Carlos Morris and Nate Mason, along with Joey King and Charles Buggs up front to shoulder most of the scoring burden this season.
I like freshman 6-6 forward Jordan Murphy. According to his coach he “can hit the three but is good on the block. He’s a natural rebounder. He can be a very good freshman.”
Pitino also is high on sophomore Gaston Diedhiou, but said he is still developing as a college player: the 6-9 forward from Dakar, Senegal at times shows flashes of athleticism and at other times inconsistency. “He has to get a little more comfortable finishing” his shots when he drives to the basket, admitted the coach. “I think last year was not fair to judge him on. I look at him [still] as a freshman.”
“I think [the Gophers are] more athletic top to bottom,” said Pitino. “I think Murph [Jordan Murphy] can block shots” as well as Buggs. “I want to stress to [both] Jordan and Buggs — not Joey as much to block shots because they have good length.”
Truth be told, both Minnesota hoop squads have their work cut out for them. “It’s going to take time but we’re jelling,” said Pitino.
“We should be very dangerous” if at full strength, concluded U-M Associate Head Coach Nikita Lowry Dawkins.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.