MINNEAPOLIS – As DeAndre Mathieu performs, so go the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
That's a lot of responsibility to fall on a player with such small shoulders, but there's no one on the roster more likely to be unfazed by pressure than the speedy, elusive, fearless Mathieu.
"He's 5-9, 160, but he believes he's 6-8, 230," coach Richard Pitino said.
The junior point guard has emerged in his first season with the program as the truest indicator of the team's success, or failure. Such an impact is certainly normal for a player who handles the ball so often, but Mathieu was largely unknown when he transferred to the program last year.
Mathieu has struggled at times, including nine turnovers in a loss at Nebraska in January and seven more in defeat at Purdue in February. But he's also played well in big games. Over Minnesota's three best victories this season, against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa, Mathieu totaled 50 points, 15 assists, 12 rebounds and only five turnovers. He shot a combined 20 for 32 from the field.
Pitino has been telling him all season how important him protecting the ball while still playing aggressively is for the Gophers, and even teammates like senior Austin Hollins have echoed the advice.
"We've got a good enough relationship where I said to him ... 'Am I being too tough on you? Am getting to you?'" Pitino said. "And he said, 'Yes.' So I backed off a little."
That was the only time of any sign Mathieu might have cracked, with a demanding first-year coach and his first foray into the rigor of Big Ten competition. Mathieu, a native of Knoxville, Tenn., played as a freshman at Morehead State in Kentucky. Then he switched to Central Arizona, a junior college, before joining the Gophers.
"It was tough. It was just like they said it'd be. Every game was a battle," Mathieu said after the Gophers beat Penn State 81-63 on Sunday.
He noted that was Minnesota's largest margin of victory in conference play.
"And it took to the end of the season to get that. So it was exactly what they told me it would be," Mathieu said.
Minnesota (19-12, 8-10) plays Penn State on Thursday in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
With three transfers and one incoming freshman, the holdovers from previous coach Tubby Smith's teams weren't sure what to expect from the newcomers. But Mathieu, who is averaging 11.9 points per game, second on the team to Andre Hollins, quickly made quite the impression with his waterbug-like moves to the basket, leadership of the fast break and remarkably accurate floating mid-range jump shot.
Hollins is most appreciative of Mathieu's ability to drive to the lane, which when the offense is working well opens up more outside shots for the other guards.
"That's not a skill that a lot of people have. He also finishes well," Hollins said.
When the Gophers first started to struggle in late January, opponents were succeeding at forcing Mathieu into costly turnovers by trapping him in the backcourt well behind the 3-point line. After sputtering through some of those games, Mathieu spoke bluntly about his deficiency and has since better determined how to avoid that.
When all else fails, of course, there's always that 15-foot floater that he swishes with regularity. He learned that from one of his youth coaches, years ago.
"I was always smaller than everybody else. I really got a lot better at it. It's starting to get a little easier because I'm getting taller," he said, laughing.
Further growth is unlikely, at least in height. If Mathieu continues to develop during tournament time this week, maybe the Gophers will get to the NCAA tournament.
"If you'd told me at the beginning of the season we could maybe win a game or two, be in the NCAA tournament with returning 48 percent of our scoring, a lot of brand new guys, a lot of guys who have never played in these type of situations," Pitino said, "I'd say, 'Where do I sign up?'"
Dave Campbell on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP