Buggs thrown into larger role for Gophers

Redshirt sophomore Charles Buggs has started two straight games.

Jack Satzinger

A 17-second span in Minnesota’s game against Iowa last Thursday showed Charles Buggs’ pure talent yet revealed why he’s still far from a polished
player.

Buggs stole the ball from Gabriel Olaseni with just more than a minute remaining and Minnesota clinging to a five-point lead. After Iowa point guard Mike Gesell fouled Buggs to stop the clock, Gophers center Mo Walker ran over and put his right arm around his teammate in adoration.

“I just told [Buggs], ‘Way to play. Keep your head up,’” Walker said.

With 59 seconds left on the clock, the redshirt sophomore forward turned the ball over, spurning an Aaron White fast-break dunk.

“He’s still learning. He’s still young,” Walker said. “I just told him, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”

Buggs will likely start his third consecutive game on Wednesday against Northwestern after coming into the year as an injured benchwarmer.

After the Iowa game, Pitino said he liked starting Buggs, and he’ll do it more.

“Tonight [was] good for him, kind of having that mini meltdown,” he said. “He’ll grow from it.”

There’s still plenty of room for Buggs to grow. The 6-foot-9-inch Arlington, Texas, native has an NBA body and impressive leaping ability, making him arguably Minnesota’s best athlete.

“It’s not even close. I don’t know who the second-best athlete would be,” Pitino said on Tuesday.

Buggs flashed his athleticism in spurts during the nonconference slate. Though he scored only two points in 10 minutes of play in a Dec. 8 victory against North Dakota, those two points got fans out of their seats.

Buggs received an off-ball screen from Hollins, cut toward the rim and then converted an alley-oop off a pass from Carlos Morris.

“I didn’t know it was coming,” Buggs said after the game. “I just went up and got it. They left me wide open.”

Buggs hadn’t fully recovered from an offseason knee surgery coming into the year, and Joey King and Josh Martin both looked like they would play more time at power forward.

But when Daquein McNeil officially left the team in January, Buggs slid over to small forward to back up Morris. And now, with Martin gone, too, Buggs has started starting regularly and has played some minutes at power forward.

Because of his slender build, small forward might be his calling.

“Naturally, he can be a better three because he’s not a physical kid,” Pitino said on Tuesday. “It’s just out of necessity where we need to put him.”

Buggs tallied 24 or more minutes in his last two games, scoring in the flow of the offense and proving to be an asset as a rebounder with his height as a small forward. In last Sunday’s game at Indiana, Buggs had five rebounds, even though starting frontcourt mates Walker and King combined for just one.

“[Buggs] played really well all around. He hit some big shots, got us some big rebounds,” Hollins said on Thursday. “He came in and gave us great minutes.”

And the number of minutes Buggs plays will likely trend upward, and more highlights — followed by lowlights — will ensue.

“It’s slowly getting better, but he’s come a long way,” Pitino said on Tuesday. “We have a need for him with McNeil being gone. … He’s been much more serious about the game.”