Minnesota adjusts lineup without McNeil

by Jack Satzinger

With Daquein McNeil serving an indefinite suspension from all team activity, Minnesota is forced to move forward without a major piece of its rotation.

“It certainly is a very difficult situation for everybody. And when that happens, a lot of guys need to fill roles that they’re not used to filling,” head coach Richard Pitino said. “[We lost] a guy that played 19 minutes a game.”

McNeil averaged only 3.3 points and 3.3 rebounds in four games played this season. But he scored 15 points in an exhibition against Minnesota-Duluth and emerged as one of the team’s top defenders.

With the loss of Austin Hollins to graduation, small forward was the biggest question mark for the Gophers entering this season. Junior college transfer Carlos Morris and an inexperienced, unconfident McNeil were the only options to replace him.

As the offseason wore on, Morris gained at least 15 pounds and McNeil became Minnesota’s most improved player. Morris eventually won the starting job, slotting McNeil as one of Minnesota’s major contributors off the bench.

Morris is now the only true small forward on Minnesota’s roster, so his backup will be filled by committee. Pitino said power forwards Charles Buggs and Joey King will both slide down to small forward at times to spell Morris. Guards Nate Mason and Andre Hollins will also see time at the position.

Buggs, a 6-foot-9-inch string bean with tantalizing athleticism, is still raw but has shown a capability to play small forward. He hit three 3-pointers to help the Gophers eke out a 66-62 victory against Georgia on Friday.

“For it to be so sudden, I think they did a really good job of just stepping in,” senior point guard DeAndre Mathieu said of McNeil’s replacements. “Charles Buggs stepped up really big in the Georgia game.”

When Pitino slots Hollins or Mason at small forward with Mathieu at the point, Minnesota will be a nightmare for bigger teams to defend.

But when the Gophers are on defense, their lack of size could be exploited. Mason and Hollins are barely more than 6 feet tall, which is a defensive liability against some of the taller small forwards in the Big Ten.

Wisconsin’s starting small forward, Sam Dekker, used his 6-foot-9-inch frame to body up LeBron James last summer. Nebraska small forward Walter Pitchford is 6 feet 10 inches.

“When we’re playing a zone [defense], we’ve got Andre in the back sometimes. That’s not ideal,” Pitino said.

Redshirt senior center Mo Walker said the Gophers have spent their past few practices adjusting without McNeil.

But the results haven’t been pretty so far.

Mason and Buggs have both been sick, Pitino said, and they first practiced Monday after returning from New York City for last week’s games.

“The flow of practice is not going to be real good for a while, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t win games,” Pitino said. “We’ve got to get back to practicing different combinations, different rotations. That’s just the reality of the situation right now.”


David Nelson contributed to this report.