Pitino juggling freshmen, vets’ minutes

Richard Pitino has changed his starting lineup throughout the season.

Minnesota guard Nate Mason drives the ball to the basket in the second half against the Badgers on Saturday, Feb 21 in Madison, Wis.

Amanda Snyder

Minnesota guard Nate Mason drives the ball to the basket in the second half against the Badgers on Saturday, Feb 21 in Madison, Wis.

Jack Satzinger

Barring an incredible run that culminates in a Big Ten tournament championship, the Gophers’ season won’t conclude in the NCAA tournament.

Minnesota could go back to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), compete in the third-tier College Basketball Invitational or worse.

Starting with a Thursday night matchup at Michigan State, three games remain for head coach Richard Pitino’s Gophers before the conference tournament.

With the season closing, Pitino is striking a balance between playing veterans to win now, and throwing his inexperienced freshmen into the fire so they’re more ready to contribute next year.

“As we’re moving forward, these young guys have got to get reps,” Pitino said. “We’re still playing to win. It’s not like winning has become secondary.”

In Minnesota’s most recent game at Wisconsin last Saturday, Elliott Eliason sat on the bench for 38 of the contest’s 40 minutes. The redshirt senior center started 35 games last season, but now he rarely plays after losing his starting spot to Mo Walker and then getting leapfrogged in the depth chart by freshman Bakary Konaté.

Senior point guard DeAndre Mathieu played more than Eliason did in the contest at 21 minutes, but he surprisingly came off the bench as freshman Nate Mason started.

Eliason and Mathieu have been integral to Minnesota’s success over the past few seasons, but giving younger athletes more playing time now could be best for the Gophers moving forward.

“We definitely need it,” Mason said Saturday.

Konaté and fellow freshman big man Gaston Diedhiou played alongside one another against the Badgers’ vaunted frontcourt on Saturday. It wasn’t pretty, but it can help them grow.

“I think the young guys are learning. I think they’re picking it up well,” Walker said. “I think they’re picking it up well. You’ve got to get them the court experience, or else they’ll never learn.”

In a conference call on Monday, Pitino said the upcoming offseason would be key for his freshmen to take the next step.

“[Mason’s] had a good year, not a great year, not a bad year, but he’s had a solid year as a freshman. Well, now that bulls-eye will be on him,” Pitino said. “Does he focus, get better, or is there a little bit of a sophomore slump?”

Luckily for the Gophers, this year’s offseason will feature a team trip to Spain where Minnesota’s young roster can improve together while abroad.

“Next year, we’re truly going to be able to build it with young guys and give them reps, as opposed to the first two years. We had some pieces back, and we kind of had to build around those guys,” Pitino said in the conference call. “We’re going to get a lot younger, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Before then, Minnesota has a season to finish.

But that doesn’t mean Pitino isn’t starting to look toward the future.

“The biggest thing is getting these … seniors to keep fighting and getting these younger guys to understand what it takes to win,” Pitino said.