MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - The emotional and intellectual leader of Minnesota’s significantly improved team might be the player who’s been with the program the shortest amount of time.
That’s how swiftly Akeem Springs has adjusted to the Gophers.
He had to, of course, because this will be his only season wearing maroon and gold.
“He’s been nothing but a team guy,” coach Richard Pitino said. “You can just tell he’s getting really, really comfortable.”
Pitino said Friday he’s been considering a switch to his starting lineup, with Springs taking sophomore Dupree McBrayer’s spot at shooting guard. The coach praised the performance of both players in recent practices, stopping short of committing to the change for Saturday’s game against 17th-ranked Wisconsin.
Losses at Michigan State and Penn State last week knocked the Gophers out of the Top 25 following their first appearance in the rankings in nearly four years. The 52-50 setback at Penn State was particularly troubling, with only seven field goals made in the second half, including just one jump shot.
That’s part of the reason Pitino began mulling expanded action for Springs, whose effectiveness in transitioning to Big Ten competition, a different offense than he ran at Milwaukee, and new coaches and teammates has been a big boost for the Gophers (15-4, 3-3 Big Ten).
As a graduate transfer, Springs was eligible to play immediately.
“I wouldn’t say it was weird, but at a point in time it was different, from a fifth-year senior,” junior point guard Nate Mason said. “He kind of stepped in and didn’t back up. That really helped us.”
Averaging 8.6 points in 20.8 minutes per game is one matter, but his dedication to and expertise in film study has done nothing but rub off on his teammates.
“Everybody on the team is really good, but I do think Akeem sets the tone with it. He asks questions,” Pitino said.
When Springs was shopping for a final stop for a college career that started at Northern Illinois, the support he received from Gophers coaches and players following the death of his grandmother was the touch that helped him finalize his decision. The opportunity to play in a power conference was the other important piece after being largely ignored by those schools out of Waukegan High School near Chicago.
“I still have a chip on my shoulder,” Springs said. “That’s what makes me stay in the gym.”
Fans have raised wary comparisons to Malik Smith, the shoot-first, one-and-done transfer from Florida International who came with Pitino to play on the young coach’s first team at Minnesota that went on to win the NIT title.
Springs, while never shy about hoisting from long range himself and shooting at a slightly more frequent rate from the field than Smith did, has shown a more well-rounded game. He’s hitting 38.1 percent of his attempts from the floor and 38.8 percent from 3-point range, bettering Smith’s marks of 34.7 and 32.8 in 2013-14.
Smith averaged 1.6 rebounds per game, including only one offensive rebound that entire season. Springs is averaging 2.8 rebounds per game, a small contribution but still a sign of activity on the court that doesn’t stop behind the arc.
During the second half of Minnesota’s victory over Ohio State on Jan. 8 , Springs used a corner-to-corner drive along the baseline to feed Mason for a floater in the lane that drew a foul. Pitino was asked afterward about that savvy, unselfish move by a shoot-first player.
“You’ve noticed,” the coach quipped, upon hearing the label.
Pitino went on to praise Springs for his acumen, attitude and experience that have impacted the Gophers in his brief time on the team.
“He’s a tremendous defender. He’s a tremendous rebounder. He’s a tremendous leader,” Pitino said. “And he just happens to be a really good shooter.”
The coach expanded on that later.
“He believes every shot’s going on,” Pitino said, “and for the most part I believe every shot’s going in, too.”
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