Written By Sam Ekstrom (ColdOmaha.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski
When Charles Buggs opted to transfer in June of 2016, graduate transfer Akeem Springs became the lone senior expected to see minutes in the upcoming Minnesota Golden Gophers season.
That might be a heavy burden to carry for some, but not Springs. He seems just as comfortable in that role as he does spotting up on the wing for a 3-point shot. “I’m like the dad of the team,” Springs said, shortly after carrying the Gophers to a 10-point win over Ohio State, hitting five 3-pointers and scoring 18 points to go with five assists.
The 78-68 win — in which the Gophers led by as many as 18 points and never trailed — tied Minnesota (15-2, 3-1) for the Big 10 lead. It’s a spot they probably never envisioned they’d be in at this point last year when they were off to a winless conference start, and it’s position they likely wouldn’t be in this season without the leadership of Springs, who came to Minneapolis from UW-Milwaukee, choosing Minnesota over Ole Miss, which would have been closer to family.
The 22-year-old Springs has made a team-high 36 3-point shots on 40.9 percent shooting, the best mark of his career. Sunday evening, however, he was also a distributor with five assists, including an impressive feed off a baseline drive that opened up Nate Mason for an and-1 opportunity late in the game.
“He’s not just a shooter,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “He plays at times like he’s just a shooter — he’s not. He’s a tremendous defender. He is a tremendous rebounder, tremendous leader. He just happens to be a really good shooter.”
— Sam Ekstrom (@SamEkstrom) January 9, 2017
Before the season begin, Springs predicted the Gophers would “shock a lot of people” this year. At practices, Springs is the most talkative, yelling to his teammates to “Get more shots!” as they compete against the clock in elbow jumper drills. He was also quick to hop out of his seat on the bench below Williams Arena’s raised floor on Sunday to wake up his comrades from an early second-half slumber as the Buckeyes pulled with two possessions.
“I just focus on the little things,” said the detail-oriented Springs. “You can’t really focus too much on scoring, but think about being in a stance, playing hard on defense. Those little things that make a big difference, that’s what I try to focus on because I have been in some of these big situations, and that’s what I try to give to these guys.”
Springs has also set the tone for the way the team watches film and digests scouting reports. Pitino applauds his knack for asking questions about upcoming opponents, which is contagious amongst his teammates. “For a young team, it’s pretty rare,” said Pitino. “When we do film sessions, guys are dialed in; they really are. They understand that those little things matter. They’ve been a really, really fun group to coach.”
So what drew Springs, a transfer with one year left of eligibility, to the Gophers, a team with an 8-23 record a year ago and a coach that gave Springs no promise of starting?
Turns out, it was their sensitivity during a trying time for Springs that made the difference. “My grandmother passed, and the way that the coaching staff and the players reached out to me, it just made it feel like home,” Springs recalled earlier in the season. “Coach did a great job giving me space when I needed space, and they showed me that they supported me and that they were here for me when I needed it, so that’s what started the relationship and got the relationship going.”
There were rumors of dissatisfaction in October when a series of cryptic tweets from Springs and his brother indicated that the senior would only stay at Minnesota if he was put in a starting role, but those whispers were quickly diffused. In hindsight, it couldn’t be clearer why Pitino chose to make Springs his sixth man.
Without much bench scoring on the team, Springs is instant offense. Like his personality, he’s not shy shooting the basketball, attempting over five triples per game in his typical 20 minutes on the floor.
He’s also a shot of adrenaline for a team that was tentative most of the team last season.
The Gophers, despite their record, are still a young team learning how to win. Springs is showing them the ropes by speech and by example, having taken over in the second half in two straight games.
He’s also acting as the glue this otherwise senior-free core needs to come together.
“If you watch the bench when big plays are happening, everyone is up,” said Springs. “[W]hen you’re winning games and you know the person next to you is happy for you and you’re happy for the next person, it makes it that much better.
“I think if we stay level-headed, we can continue our success.”