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Men's basketball: Gophers leading the nation in assists

By Marcus R. FullerSt. Paul Pioneer Press MINNEAPOLIS -- Leading the nation in assists was not a goal second-year coach Richard Pitino set for the University of Minnesota basketball team this season. He wouldn't even say he has a great passing te...

By Marcus R. Fuller
St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS - Leading the nation in assists was not a goal second-year coach Richard Pitino set for the University of Minnesota basketball team this season.
He wouldn’t even say he has a great passing team yet.
But the Gophers’ impressive assist numbers so far have been a result of improvement defensively and point guard DeAndre Mathieu improving as a passer.
The Gophers (8-2), who play host to Seattle (5-5) at 7 p.m. tonight at Williams Arena, are ranked No. 1 in Division I basketball with 19.7 assists per game.
“DeAndre is the catalyst for it,” senior guard Andre Hollins said. “He’s always penetrating and getting into the lane. He’s causing a lot of havoc from his penetration. He gets a lot of us open. Me, Nate (Mason) and Carlos (Morris), we can take it to the basket. And when the defense steps forward, we’re happy to drop it off to a teammate or kick it out for an open shot.”
Hollins said this is the best Gophers team he’s played on when it comes to dribble penetration.
Mathieu, who is averaging 9.5 points and 5.9 assists (second in the Big Ten), has been consistently attacking the basket since he arrived at Minnesota last season. But he has focused more on facilitating and taking care of the ball than scoring this season - and it’s made a big difference for the team.
Hollins, who is averaging 19 points over the past four games, broke out of a slump because Mathieu emphasized getting the team’s leading scorer the ball.
Mathieu, a 5-foot-9 junior college transfer in his second season with the Gophers, ranks third in the Big Ten and 13th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.69). Last season, Mathieu was last in the Big Ten in that category (1.3).
“I think the unselfishness of our basketball team is certainly a strength, and it all starts with DeAndre Mathieu,” Pitino said.
Mathieu recorded the first double-digit assist game of his college career - and first for the program since 2010 - with 10 assists and zero turnovers in a Dec. 8 victory over North Dakota.
“I didn’t think it would take me this long,” Mathieu said. “Playing with guys like Austin (Hollins) and Andre making shots, I thought it would come last year. But I’m just glad it came when it did. My teammates are playing really well right now making a lot of shots and really helping me out.”
And Mathieu thinks he’s only getting started. He says 15 assists in a game “isn’t out of the question.”
He and assistant coach Ben Johnson talk about setting assists goals this year.
“I’m a lot smarter this year; I’m looking to pass a lot more,” Mathieu said. “Last year, I was looking to get into the lane and looking to score a lot more.”
But Mathieu isn’t the only Gopher distributing the ball effectively.
Mason, a freshman from Decatur, Ga., is second on the team in assists (3.6) and fourth in the Big Ten and 17th in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.6).
Duke point guard Tyus Jones, who is from Apple Valley, is the only freshman in the country with a better assist-to-turnover ratio (4.16) than Mason.
Hollins has more assists (28) than turnovers (27) this season, so he recognizes the importance of Mason’s ball-handling presence.
“He’s a huge key,” Hollins said. “He’s a very talented freshman. He’s going to have an amazing four years here. I know when he goes in the game, there’s not going to be a dropoff.”
Pitino has tried to instill a defense-first mind-set with his players. One reason for the Gophers’ impressive assist numbers this season , he said, is their defense is allowing for more possessions.
Minnesota ranks third in the country in steals (11.7) and 23rd in defensive efficiency (90.9).
“I don’t think we have naturally great passers like (Timberwolves point guard) Ricky Rubio,” Pitino said. “But I think we’re very unselfish. And I think a lot of it, to be honest, is because we’re getting steals, we’re getting assists. Because when you get steals, you advance it on the break and get an easy assist. So I think that attributes to it, too.”
Whether it’s in transition or in a half-court offense, the Gophers are finding each other on a more regular basis this year.
And everyone seems to be benefitting from it.
“They’re starting to learn more ways to get me the ball,” senior center Mo Walker said. “We’re more comfortable playing off each other.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

 

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