Richmond to provide tough test for thin Gophers

by Jack Satzinger

The Gophers (2-0) have won their first two regular season games by a combined 45 points, but don't expect that trend to continue in Saturday's game at Richmond (2-0).

Last year Minnesota beat Richmond 72-57 at home, but this year a new look Gophers team will have to play the Spiders on the road without one of their biggest bodies. 

“It was anybody’s game until the last five minutes last year,” head coach Richard Pitino said. “We’re a different team and they’ve got a lot of significant guys back.”

Different is a word that could describe some of Minnesota's lineups in the young 2013-14 season. With center Mo Walker serving a six-game suspension for violating a university policy, an already small Gophers frontcourt has had to play 6-foot-4 inch guard Austin Hollins at power forward at times.

He has excelled in the position to this point, reeling in a career-high 10 rebounds in Minnesota's 84-58 win over Montana. Still, Pitino said he doesn't expect that stellar play to continue once teams scout Hollins and understand his tendencies in the post.

When Walker comes back from suspension, Pitino said it's very unlikely Hollins would play any minutes at power forward unless Minnesota was hit with severe foul trouble.

“I don’t think it’s ideal, it’s not what I’d love to do,” Pitino said of the small lineup. “If we’re small, we need to be quick. We can’t be small and slow.”

One player that could step in and play power forward for the Gophers with Walker out is Charles Buggs, but he's only seen the court for six minutes over two games. Pitino said he's not ready to contribute consistently yet. 

“He’s really thin,” Pitino said of Buggs. “He’s just not strong enough right now. He’s got a lot of things that he could be good at, but he’s just a freshman.”

Another option at power forward could have been Rakeem Buckles, whose transfer from Florida International to Minnesota was denied. He's averaging 19.8 points and 11 rebounds per game this year. 

“It’s [Buckles'] birthday today and his mom called me last night,” Pitino said. “I don’t know if she’s rubbing it in…but she sends me every box score.” 

Buckles is still in South Beach and Buggs isn't ready to play significant minutes. As a result, Pitino has fielded exceptionally small formations. 

Those quick lineups have pushed opponents out of their comfort zone thus far. That's resulted in turnovers, fast break points, and most importantly — wins. But Pitino said Richmond should be better prepared to handle the pressure.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to think we’re just going to turn them over like we have different teams,” Pitino said. “They’re very good against [pressure], they’re very patient offensively. That’s the way they build their program.”

Going up against a more polished Richmond team on the road, Minnesota faces a tough test Saturday. Walker's suspension has only amplified that challenge for the already thin frontcourt. 

“We’ll learn a lot about our team this game," Pitino said. "More than any other game we’ve played and it’s still very early."