Gophers having fun in Pitino's new system

December, 4, 2013
12/04/13
2:00
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The smirk on Austin Hollins’ face didn’t last. But it was visible for a moment during Minnesota’s 71-61 win over Florida State on Tuesday in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
There in the second half, as Minnesota emerged from a timeout that was taken after Austin Hollins’ "SportsCenter"-worthy alley-oop from DeAndre Mathieu, he smiled. Briefly.

It was the natural reaction from a player who knew that he had impressed everyone in the building, the supporters watching on TV and the social media-types.

Austin Hollins was having fun.

Richard Pitino’s arrival and implementation of a new system -- the same one his father Rick runs at Louisville -- that encourages his guards to make plays outside and inside coincided with a new set of rules that have created more pitfalls for defenders bent on stopping them.

Wings all over America have experienced the perks -- on offense, at least -- of the adjustments. The “don’t touch” emphasis has helped players such as Austin Hollins enjoy more freedom on the floor. And Pitino’s philosophy -- plenty of pressing and quick buckets when feasible -- demands it.

[+] Enlarge Austin Hollins
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsAustin Hollins and the Golden Gophers are having a lot of fun in new coach Richard Pitino's system.
“If you can score as fast as you can, you can take it,” said Minnesota forward Oto Osenieks. “If you’re open, just shoot it. He doesn’t worry about the time on the clock. If you’re open, just shoot it. That’s our style, up-tempo basketball. Get out and just score as quickly as possible. … You don’t hesitate. And you don’t think twice.”

Austin Hollins (16 points, 5 rebounds, 2-for-4 from the 3-point line), Andre Hollins (team-high 21 points, 4 assists, 2 steals) and Mathieu (7 points, 4 assists) employed that tenet in Minnesota’s most significant win under Richard Pitino.

Andre Hollins torched Florida State in the first half and Austin Hollins took over after halftime.

“It feels good,” Austin Hollins said. “It makes me comfortable. You’re not too worried about making any mistakes. You’re just playing hard. … As a player, it really boosts your confidence.”

There were dunks and double-pump layups and floaters and fast breaks by a determined Gophers team that seemingly entered the matchup at a disadvantage.

Florida State won the warm-ups. The chiseled wings and forwards that head coach Leonard Hamilton hauled from Tallahassee looked like tight ends he’d plucked off his university’s football team compared to the slim, undersized Gophers.

But that was Florida State’s only victory. Minnesota’s hybrid zone gave Hamilton’s program open looks, but his players couldn’t find the net.

Florida State has a win over a nationally ranked VCU squad, and it nearly upset both Michigan and Florida in recent weeks.

But it went 2-for-10 from the 3-point line. The team committed 17 turnovers and it never recovered from the 15-point lead Minnesota established in the first half.

The Gophers were dominant from tipoff because they went 5-for-10 from the 3-point line in the first half, and 7-for-16 overall. And they were strong enough on defense to block every Florida State rally. Although it was down by as many as 13 points after halftime, Florida State cut Minnesota’s lead to four six times in the final minutes.

Mathieu scored a critical bucket over 7-foot-3 center Boris Bojanovsky with 1:48 on the game clock, a play that gave Minnesota a 66-60 lead.

It wasn’t all pretty. Mathieu’s shot was the team’s only field goal in the final 7:26 of the game. There were 67 free throws (Minnesota hit 28 of 38, Florida State went 19-for-29) and 52 fouls in a game that shouldn’t have lasted nearly 2 hours and 30 minutes.

“I’m not real sure the referees allowed anybody to be tough,” Hamilton said. “They executed their half court much better than we executed ours.”

But it was still a much-needed win for a Gophers team that lost two of its three games in the Maui Invitational last week.

After Pitino was hired to replace Tubby Smith in April, players weren’t sure how they would transition into his style of play.

“At first, I was like ‘Ah, we’re going to be pressing the whole game,’ but we worked hard in the summertime and really got excited,” said Andre Hollins.

They’re gradually adopting Pitino’s principles.

If the Gophers are going to achieve anything this season, then they’ll need their perimeter players to affect games the way they did on Tuesday night. They’re thin inside with Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason positioned as the only true big men on the roster. With 90 seconds to play, both had fouled out of the game.

Small ball, however, might not be a bad thing. It worked against Florida State. The Gophers exploited the gaps by maneuvering off ball screens, hitting the 3s that were available and attacking the rim when permissible.

“You know, the rules changed,” said Florida State’s Ian Miller, who shared a team-high 16-point tally with Okaro White. “It’s really hard for us to out-physical teams.”

It’s too early to make any predictions about the Gophers. But it’s not premature to assume that Pitino’s guards are on board with the changes he’s made in the past seven months.

And Tuesday’s win, which might be valuable on Selection Sunday, was proof of that.

But it’s much easier to invest when they’re granted the flexibility to be the playmakers that every basketball player wants to be.

“A lot of people are saying we’re small,” said Mathieu, a junior college transfer, “but the style we play, it doesn’t matter how small we are because we’re just going to run by you.”

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