Well, that was a whirlwind. Every year in November I look at the schedule and think that March Madness seems so distant and far away. And yet it always sneaks up on me. I had a lot of fun in my third year on the beat and fourth year at the Star Tribune.
Every now and then, I have to tell myself to stop, sit back and realize for a moment that I'm doing what I've always dreamed. I consider myself pretty lucky. Thanks to you guys for continuing to read and helping to make us one of the more successful papers of our size.
Now, though, I am looking forward to a more relaxed offseason and the opportunity to take some vacations, such as I just did to the great state of California, where I had the best sushi of my life (at a place called Sugarfish in Santa Monica).
Alright, enough sap. Onto the questions.
@jessejames3ball: @AmeliaRayno What was your favorite (non-Sidbit) moment of the Gophers season? #aMAILiaBAG
Nice of you to ask, Jesse.
I don't know if I can actually pick one moment, but I have a small quilt of moments.
like the Wisconsin game at Williams-- when Austin Hollins dunked, one-handed, over Nigel Hayes and the building nearly caught fire -- just for the sheer noise and atmosphere of it. Senior night was fun to watch simply because I've spent three years getting to know Hollins and Maverick Ahanmisi and Oto Osenieks, and they're all genuinely good people I wish well in life. Malik Smith had just one season at Minnesota, of course, but he was a real pleasure for the media earlier in the year (unfortunately, his late-season slump eradicated a lot of interview opportunities). There are plenty others that stick out. Watching Hollins go off for 32 against Southern Miss, on his last night on the Williams Arena floor. That last-minute rainbow in the NIT championship, and the moment everyone realized that would be the last shot of Hollins' four-year career. The players celebrating like kids on the court; climbing up a step ladder to snip down the net, piece by piece.
Then there are other, off-the-court things I'll remember fondly. The three days in Chadron, Nebraska and reporting for my eventual story on center Elliott Eliason: roaming the pine-crested hills; chatting with his parents as they constructed a tower of blueberry pancakes; getting the tour of the town by his former high school coach. Writing my story on Daquein McNeil, and the chance to tell a little bit of his tough but heartwarming story. Covering DeAndre Mathieu, who really lit up the team this season. His incredible speed and quickness of the tiny guard in driving to the basket, finishing in ways that never ceased to make you shake your head -- that was all great to watch. But the real gold came in the locker room, where we got to know Mathieu as one of the most genuine players out there, and one with a sharp sense of humor, a willingness to say what's on his mind and the guts to hold himself accountable. Covering the Big Ten tournament is always a blast, both for the on-court intrigue -- especially in a year like this one -- and off-court drinking with all the league's writers in one place.
Finally, there is the travel. I really love that aspect of my job as well. I enjoyed going to Richmond for the first time this year and was actually blown away by how much I liked the little Southern town. Maui, of course, was absolutely amazing, even if it did put a damper on the rest of my winter. And there are a lot of Big Ten cities I really like visiting. This year, I stayed in Omaha instead of Lincoln, found some really solid eating/drinking spots and saw one of the top three sunsets I think I've ever viewed. Columbus is a legitimately great mid-sized town. Madison and Chicago never disappoint. But Ann Arbor might be the new favorite to lead the pack.
@JimPolzinWSJ: @AmeliaRayno Do you plan on giving your readers what they really want -- more Wisconsin coverage -- next season? #aMAILiaBAG
You know, Jim, I think you're referring to this story, which was SO popular amongst my readers I feel the need to share it again.
I have to say, I get that this is a rivalry, but the reaction to a news story -- not a column, mind you, but just a factual look at the program -- baffles me a bit. I mean, the state border is about 40 minutes away from Minneapolis, Jim, you know this. The team made the Final Four. The NIT was over. In what world would I not write that story? I'm not saying that to be facetious. I'm a Red Sox fan and a North Carolina fan, so hey, I get rivalries. I also grew up in cities where the primary news organizations cover those rivalries from many angles. The Raleigh News and Observer covers NC State, UNC and Duke because of sheer proximity. And yes, the Boston Globe has often written about the Yankees. Minnesota fans seem like an intelligent bunch (see, we can be friends), so I have a hard time believing so many wouldn't see the logic in a similar approach.
I had a lot of folks asking me (more like obnoxiously lecturing, if we're being honest, Jim) whether a Wisconsin paper would do the same were the contexts of the programs flip-flopped. I have no idea. It's impossible to know, of course, because we can't change the context. I wonder if the State Journal or another Wisconsin publication did do a big MInnesota takeout, if Badgers fans would have such an outcry.
Which begs the question, and maybe you, as a Wisconsin beat writer, can help solve this for me: Do Badgers fans hate Gophers fans as much as Gophers fans hate them? Or is this a classic case of Little Brother Syndrome and Wisconsin fans don't really care (but would if it were the Gophers that were reaching the NCAA tournament year after year while their own school consistently missed out). I really need to get to the bottom of this.
To answer your question, though, in more succinct form: if the Badgers start out strong again next year -- yeah, we'll probably cover more of them.
@minnygrad89: @AmeliaRayno Can you give me an educated guess (term used loosely!) on the five starters in the first game next November?
It's hard to say without knowing whether Minnesota will sign two more recruits for next season, and if so who they'll be. But assuming the roster looks the way it does now (plus Josh Martin, Nate Mason, Carlos Morris and Gaston Diedhiou and sans Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi, Oto Osenieks and Malik Smith), my best guess is the following:
2: Andre Hollins
3: "Squirrel" Morris
4: Joey King
5: Mo Walker
Spots 1, 2 and 5 are as good as sealed. Elliott Eliason was very strong defensively this season, but his offensive production was inconsistent at best. With Walker's defense improving, he should be able to edge Eliason out for the starting role. He's only getting better. Mathieu was another one of the bright spots from this season and has the point guard role locked down. Hollins will be at shooting guard once more. Small forward and power forward are the areas with some wiggle room. My guess is King will start the season based on the production we saw from him in the last few weeks. He will be the only four-man on the roster with meaningful experience in coach Richard Pitino's system. Martin and Diedhiou will both get the chance to make the case for starting, but may not get that distinction right away. Rising sophomore Charles Buggs should get a bigger role next year as well, but should still come off the bench. Morris is probably the most game-ready options of the current incoming recruits and would probably best help to fill the defensive vacancy created with Austin Hollins' graduation. Mason has a lot of upside, but with Mathieu and Hollins rooting the backcourt and the incoming freshman's size limiting him somewhat, there doesn't seem to be room for him in a non-reserve role just yet.
@bonehead267: @AmeliaRayno In regards to spring recruits, any updates on when those players we are recruiting will make their decisions? #amailiabag
The spring signing period begins April 16 (today!) and ends May 21, so expect to start hearing a little more chatter soon. A few notes on Minnesota's current situation here.
@AboyJakeRadke: @AmeliaRayno mayonnaise or miracle whip? #amailiabag
Mayo. Miracle Whip is gross.
@bangerang17: @AmeliaRayno any updates on the big man from Grand Rapids? could definitely help? #aMAILiaBAG
Sounds like you're referring to Alex Illikainen, Bangerang. The 2015 four-star big man is really starting to generate a lot of interest, and he's up to No. 83 in the Rivals national rankings for that class. He visited California earlier this winter, and things should be heating up soon with visits to schedule and a cache of offers to narrow down. He told Rivals he wants to make a decision by the end of the summer. But most of what will go into that decision will be played out in these next few months.
@rademp1: @AmeliaRayno could you give us how you would grade the end of year contribution by position? also grade for bench and coaching staff.
Another good question. Here we go:
Point guard: A -- Minnesota has to be happy with how this aspect of the team evolved. At the start of the season, no one knew who the point guard would be. At the end, it was one of the strengths. Without Mathieu, who was the heart and the engine of the team all year, it's hard to imagine the Gophers winning the NIT or even coming close. Andre Hollins was solid in relief. The only real sticking point would be Mathieu's tendency to become turnover prone, especially when frustrated.
Shooting guard: C -- There is no doubt that Andre Hollins plays a big role on this Minnesota team. But too often, he didn't live up to those expectations.. Away from the ball, Hollins often struggled to get himself involved offensively. An ankle injury in January set him back substantially. And both Ahanmisi and Smith -- though capable of big boosts -- were largely unreliable. The result was one of the more inconsistent areas on the team.
Small forward: B -- Mainly rooted by the ever-versatile Austin Hollins, with Smith stepping in occasionally, the three-spot was mostly solid with good production. Even when Hollins went through his mid-season shooting slump, his lock-down defensive skills and improved nose for rebounding were big assets.
Power forward: C -- We expected this position to be average and scrapped together all year and for the most part production and expectations evened out. The power forward was mainly a platoon between Osenieks and King with some late-season spurts from Buggs. All had their bright spots (Osenieks' improved shooting; King's postseason tear; Buggs Mania vs. Iowa) and their hiccups (Osenieks' degenerative knees causing him to struggle and finally mostly hang up his high tops; King's defensive lapses and decision-making; Buggs' rawness as a liability). Overall, the contribution from that spot was about what I thought and if anything, maybe a hair better.
Center: A+ -- We didn't know what to expect from Mathieu. But we did know what to expect from Minnesota's centers. Or at least we thought we did. Eliason had been mostly a spot player without much offensive value up until that point. Walker had just lost 60 pounds, but had to learn how to play in his new body and hadn't gotten much court time, really, for the last three years. Surprise. The tandem wound up being one of Minnesota's biggest strengths. Eliason's shot-blocking ability was hugely valuable and Walker developed some post moves that were genuinely hard to stop.
Coaching staff: B -- This staff is still learning and growing in front of us. The 32-year-old Pitino is still very youthful and that occasionally showed in on-court decision-making and late-game calls. Some of that can be disguised with a really strong right-hand man to key in on specific moments that a head coach -- looking at the big picture -- can occasionally miss. But the assistants are all fairly youthful as well. In general, though, I think that youth played out in a very positive way. The Gophers staff has already shown a relentless attitude toward recruiting and an ability to bring out the best in the players. Year One showcased the staff's knack for finding underrated talent -- an absolute necessity when building a program that hasn't had a ton of recent success -- and developing the guys that are already there. Up and down the roster, we saw a lot of improvement. Of course, the biggest judge of their success is the postseason, and there the Gophers excelled. I never thought this was an NCAA tournament team. Winning the NIT would have been a very optimistic prediction before the season began.
*It should be noted that these rankings are a) subjective and b) relative to initial expectations of that position.
@los_jim: @AmeliaRayno in light of the evolution of Mo & EE, what is your prediction for the biggest surprise of the Gophers next year? #aMAILiaBag
I think Mason has a chance to be very good off the bench and when in with Mathieu could transform the Gophers' backcourt into one of the speediest in the Big Ten. I anticipate Buggs taking some pretty strong steps as well.
@N0ELTHOMPSON: @AmeliaRayno Any goal for how much muscle Pitino wants Mo to add? I think with the added muscle, he could be two times better below the rim.
He hasn't given us a number, but I know lifting will be a major focus of Walker's offseason regimen. Obviously, most of his effort a year ago went into actually losing the weight. This summer brings a big opportunity to get a lot stronger.
@SuperFanMN: @AmeliaRayno Who's the backup 2 [next season], when [Andre Hollins] is playing 1?
Good question. Right now, the only guys on the roster that could play that role are Daquein McNeil or Nate Mason. The former is still developing his offensive game, and the latter is very undersized, but will probably see some time both there and at point. I think the Gophers see a lot of potential in him.
@karlanderson13: @AmeliaRayno where in Scandinavia are you going this offseason? CPH is better when warm. #aMAILiaBAG
I don't think I'll be going to Scandinavia this offseason, although I'm sure Copenhagen is a whole new world in the summer. In hindsight, going at Christmas wasn't the best idea because, well, they take holiday very seriously over there and a lot of things -- including NOMA and every tattoo shop in the city -- were closed.
I am hoping to get to Europe, and if I do my plan is to hit either Spain or Italy, France and potentially the Greek islands to consume more than my share of Assyrtiko.
@AndyGlockner: @AmeliaRayno Best reuben in Mpls now that Rye closed?
The answer to that imperative query is Eli's Downtown. They smoke their own meats, just as Rye did and while they don't have the fancy schmancy cocktail list that fallen favorite did, they do put plenty of tender love and care into their sandwiches (and just about everything on their menu, for that matter).