This is the one everyone had circled at the start of the season. The first round of the Maui Invitational. The first big-time test in the Richard Pitino era. The Gophers (5-0) matchup with No. 8 Syracuse (4-0) at 4:30 p.m. on Monday afternoon.
Here are my 5 things to watch for:
Fast start: The Gophers jumped out to a 24-2 lead over Wofford in eight minutes on Thursday. Obviously, this isn't Wofford. But Minnesota has jumped out to sizable leads in the early minutes on a consistent basis in this young season. Doing the same today could make favored Syracuse sweat and give Pitino's squad a lot of confidence.
Elliott Eliason: The big easy has been a monster on the boards for the Gophers early on this season. He's averaging 11.2 rebounds per game to go along with 7.6 points. Syracuse has size, and it's going to be largely Eliason's responsibility to deal with it -- especially with Mo Walker out serving the last game of his six-game suspension. I do think Joey King plays, which will help. If Eliason can bang with the Orange big men and have success on the offensive glass against Syracuse's 2-3 zone, Minnesota will have success.
The Transfers: The Gophers know what they're going to get from Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins: Production. They've done it time and time again. But the X-factors are the new guys. DeAndre Mathieu has been a spark in Pitino's up-tempo system, but he struggled in the Gophers only real test on the road against Richmond. How will he do against Syracuse's size. If Joey King plays, will he be able to bang down low? He has to be a difference maker on the glass. And finally, Malik Smith. He is taking threes like they are on sale for just one more day and there's a limited supply available. Smith is tied for the team lead in triple tries (29) despite playing only the sixth-most minutes. But Pitino has said he will put up with Smith's shot selection, because there are times when he will win his team games. Against the Syracuse zone, that day could be here.
Defending C.J. Fair: Fair was the preseason pick for ACC Player of the Year and is averaging 18 points per game this season. The senior forward is seasoned and skilled. He can score in a variety of ways on the court. Fair will likely be defended by a combination of Oto Osenieks, Joey King [if he plays] and Austin Hollins. Don't be surprised to see Hollins cover Fair even when he isn't playing the four spot. The Gophers need to attempt to at least limit his production.
Zone Offense: Minnesota's zone offense looked putrid at times under former head coach Tubby Smith. The Orange and Hall of Fame head coach Jim Boeheim feature what is consistently one of the stingiest zones in the country. Pitino knows it's coming, but can he design an offense to succeed against it? The Gophers have a multitude of players who are more than willing to shoot from the perimeter this season (28 attempts against Coastal Carolina), which could help, but could hurt if they settle too often for the outside shot. the Gophers ability to create quality looks and score against the zone will be the biggest factor in determining thier success on the floor this afternoon.