|But what happened next?|
Well here we are, the official dawning of the Richard Pitino era. After two meaningless and completely uninformative exhibition games we finally get it rolling with a real opponent, the Lehigh Mountain Hawks. Unfortunately the Mountain Hawks aren't same Mountain Hawks who gave us one of my favorite moments in NCAA Tournament History so the game (hopefully) won't be all that close, but I think Lehigh should get a standing ovation when they come out anyway just for this:
But, unfortunately, C.J. McCollum, Gabe Knutson, and Holden Greiner are all gone from that team (and last year's respectable squad that went 21-10 (10-4 in the Patriot) and made the CBI) so Lehigh will likely take a step back as those three were three of the better players in the team's history.
Not unlike the Gophers, Lehigh is much more stable in the back court than up front. It all starts with point guard Mackey McKnight, the six-foot senior point guard who is the team's leading returning scorer (11.9), assister (4.9), stealer (1.3), and second leading returning rebounder (3.6). Mackey is an excellent player (preseason All-Patriot League) and relies on penetration to get his points, although he doesn't mind throwing up the 3-ball even if it's not his best weapon (31% last year). What that penetration does is open up shots for wings Anthony D'Orazio (35% on 83 attempts lasts year) and Stefan Cvrkalj (38% on 93 attempts). If these guys get hot it could certainly cause some problems.
Lehigh would have been even better off in this regard, but B.J. Bailey (48% on 55 attempts) graduated and, with a year of eligibility remaining, opted not to come back for his final year (it should be noted the Patriot League does not give out athletic scholarships other than a handful for football, I believe). There are also questions about Cvrkalj who is recovering from a knee injury and may not even suit up. If he can't go it presses back-up point guard Corey Schroeder into more time off the ball, but he can be deadly there as well (46% from three, although with out the volume of the others). Freshman Austin Price will probably work into the mix as well, and is another guy who can shoot from deep.
Up front there are a ton of questions, given that Lehigh's biggest strength the last couple seasons has been efficiently scoring the basketball and Bailey, McCollum, Knutson, and Greiner were the four leaders in that category last year with three of them (Bailey, McCollum, and Greiner) ranking in the top 100 according to kenpom (well, Bailey and McCollum would have if they qualified). The Mountain Hawks almost make the Gophers' frontline look battle seasoned, given that they'll be heavily reliant on players who are either completely green (freshmen Tim Kempton and Shane Whitfield, sophomore Jesse Chuku who did not play last season after coming over from London because of probably some dumb NCAA rule) or lightly tested (junior Conroy Baltimore with 406 career minutes over two years, sophomore Justin Goldsborough with 362 minutes last year). Those are some pretty sweet names, but what they can do on the court is beyond a question mark, although Kempton seems like a pretty good bet for Patriot Rookie of the Year.
Overall the Mountain Hawks were a pretty bad rebounding team last season and with the players they lost it seems hard to imagine that will get much better. The Gophers have the same question, but with more size and more experience, and although Lehigh has solid guard play injuries and graduations have hit them, while the Gophers back court remains largely intact and should be improved with the additions of Malik Smith and Dre Mathieu (#honeygopher). I expect Lehigh will play a zone in order to help protect their baby front court, and as long as the Gophers don't fall into the bad habit of settling for three pointers all game this should be a fairly easy first win for the Pitino era.
Minnesota 80, Lehigh 55.
Just an FYI as well, there are some really good games right out of the shoot tonight: UCONN vs. Maryland in Brooklyn, St. Johns vs. Wisconsin in South Dakota, Oregon vs. Georgetown in South Korea, Colorado @ Baylor, Oklahoma @ Alabama, BC @ Providence should all be pretty entertaining. Plus there's Day Action and a late game (Drexel @ UCLA) that doesn't start until 11pm. What a day. Reid Travis announcement, Day Action, Gophers start the season, and a night capper game. I am going to be doing a lot of gambling.