This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno
Read my game story on tonight's 92-79 victory over Nebraska Omaha here.
Having already notched the 1,000th point of his career, Andre Hollins felt the need to further take control, in the locker room at halftime.
Nebraska Omaha had hit a stunning ten three-pointers in the first half to stay neck-in-neck with Minnesota at the half, when the teams were tied at 44.
"I specifically told the team ‘That’s the only thing that’s keeping them in the game, three-point shooting.’" Hollins said. "My emphasis was chase them off the line, make them put the ball on the floor and try to make a play against our bigs, because they only scored four (two-pointers) in the first half. So we wanted to get them to try to make plays instead of just looking for that three-point shot."
Minnesota was able to do that in the second half, holding the Mavericks without a three-pointer and pulling away in the final minutes with incredible performances from Deandre Mathieu (27 points, four assists, two steals and Malik Smith (19 points, three rebounds, two steals). Both point totals were career highs for the players.
For a no-name opponent in the last game before the holiday break, it was a pretty interesting game to watch. Along with the big milestone for Hollins, who reached the mark one game after teammate Austin Hollins did, the junior guard also grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds. It was his first double-double since high school and something he was more excited about than the 1,000 points, even, he said.
Omaha, ranked No. 8 in the nation in tempo, looked pretty good, and kept the Gophers -- who mixed in man-to-man and a 2-3 zone with their press -- on their toes defensively. When forced to go inside, though, the Mavericks didn't have much success. Meanwhile, Elliott Eliason quietly nearly scored a double-double himself, collecting nine rebounds to go with his ten points and a double-take-worthy four steals.
"Yeah, I don’t know how that happened -- I looked at that, and I thought it was a misprint," coach Richard Pitino said before acknowledging that as the last line of defense in the press, he would like his power forwards and centers to get more steals.
Other notes from tonight's 92-79 win.
Please check out my story on the manifestation of the new NCAA fouling rules, felt around the country.
Tonight’s game will tip off at 8 p.m. Watch on Big Ten Network. Listen on 1500-a.m.
The Gophers might be playing a no-name opponent, heading into another long break for the holidays, but the style that Nebraska – Omaha brings to Williams Arena on Friday night could bring an interesting new challenge for Minnesota.
Comparatively, the pace at which the Mavericks play makes the Gophers look incredibly slow.
After finishing last season at No. 1 in the nation in tempo, Nebraska-Omaha lands at No. 8 while averaging 84.5 points a game. Minnesota, meanwhile, has talked about playing an up-tempo style, but is currently ranked just 261st in the country in that regard.
“They are one of the best offensive teams we will have played thus far,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “They shoot quick. They probably average possessions, that last 14, 15 seconds. Very, very dangerous game. They were up on Iowa the whole game. They beat Nevada on the road, they lost at the buzzer to UNLV, at UNLV. So this is going to be a very tough test, defensively, for us.
“This team has been battle-tested. This team is not going to be, by any means, scared of us, they’re going to come in here expecting to win.”
Center Elliott Eliason said the Mavericks’ style will pose “some unique challenges,” and test the conditioning of the 2013-14 as well as their defense, which has been really good at times and really lax at others.
How will Minnesota’s press fare against Nebraska-Omaha’s super quick guards and high-flying offense? Can the Gophers keep the Mavericks in front of them or will Pitino be forced to switch to a 2-3 zone early?
“You’ve got to run back," Eliason said. "You can’t sit around if you don’t get the rebound on the offensive glass, you can’t swat around at it, trying to steal it, you’ve got to run back, sprint back in the paint. Because they’re coming, they’re coming right at you. And even if you make a shot, you’ve got to get back … you’re the last line of defense. So if they get by your guards, it ends up being on you to stop it at the rim.”
Other notes on Nebraska-Omaha:
Gophers coach Richard Pitino knows the threat of this time of year -- when the Gophers play a single game in a 17-day stretch.
So do his players.
"Games like this can be pretty difficult because there is nothing else to do," center Mo Walker said. "It’s Christmas break, people are interested in seeing their families, going home and whatnot, so there still is a distraction, in a sense, because there is nothing else going on, so people are looking towards the future and what’s about to happen."
Which is why the Minnesota coach was so pleased to see the team have some of their best practices of the season in the last week.
On Sunday, the Gophers broke up the 10-day gameless stretch (which ends tomorrow, when Minnesota faces Nebraska- Omaha at the Barn) with a Maroon vs. Gold scrimmage. Pitino, who brought in referees for the event, was impressed with what he saw.
"We knew we had a long week ahead of us," Pitino said. "And it was really good. The guys competed. Now, certainly, we’ve got a lot to work on -- I just love the competitive nature of the guys during the scrimmage ... the fact that there was no fans in the stands, it wasn’t on TV, it wasn’t online, and they were competing as it was a Big Ten team. That’s good to see."
Then yesterday, Pitino said, the Gophers had the "best practice we've had in a while" after a similarly strong outing the day before. On Wednesday, the team was so into it, that the coach actually had to "dial back" the intensity, he said, which is something he'd like to be forced to do a little more often.
"That’s something we need to get better at as a team, just kind of that ferociousness," he said. "We’re really nice, and we need to get meaner, and that was a good step in the right direction ... They were focused, they were working hard, trying to get better defensively, really competing."
After tomorrow, the Gophers don't play against until Dec. 28, more than a week later. But Elliott Eliason said that while the break is long, he doesn't mind having so much time away from the books, to concentrate on improving his craft.
"Without school, it’s a lot easier," he said. "A lot more time to focus on just playing basketball. Sometimes you get caught up in a trap if you have nothing else to do, but I honestly enjoy it when we don’t have school and we’re able to just play basketball and focus."
There has been much talk about whether new Gophers coach Richard Pitino’s press has really been effective, and whether it can be going forward.
After all, at times, it looks like a bit of a liability, at times the Gophers have to ditch it. At times, Pitino opts instead for man-to-man or a 2-3 zone.
But the answer can be viewed in the steals column of the Gophers’ stats.
Minnesota is averaging 8.6 a game, best in the Big Ten. That’s 1.2 steals a game more than the Gophers averaged all year last season, but early, they’ve made it count more by limiting turnovers on the other end. Currently, the Gophers are fourth in the Big Ten in turnover margin. Last year, Minnesota opponents had 7.6 steals a game to cancel out the Gophers’ 7.4.
“We’ve done a pretty good job of it … our goal is 9 or 10 [steals per game],” Pitino said. [The players have] been aggressive, they’ve pressured the ball, they’ve done a good job. It all starts with our guards at the front of the press.”
New point guard DeAndre Mathieu has been essential to the team’s press, and he sets the tone for the energy at the top. The JUCO transfer, who leads the team with 23 steals is extremely quick and tough to get past, and he loves to throw his hands in passing lanes, snatch the offering and zip off in the other direction. When the Gophers are able to harass teammates into rushed possessions, they’ve had success; the times they’ve struggled are when the press gets lax and opponents can blow past it or just patiently make their way up the court.
“We need an aggressive Andre Hollins, we need an aggressive Austin Hollins, we need an aggressive DeAndre Mathieu,” Pitino said. “If they can speed guys up, then we can start our press. If they don’t do that, we’re not very effective.”
One of the keys right now is that the Gophers know when to NOT use it. Pitino has proven willing to switch out if his players aren’t successfully making the opponent uncomfortable, rather than blindly stick to his signature system element. That has only helped contribute to opponent discomfort through the early season, with three different defenses being available at any time.
Of course, there is plenty of room for improvement, and Pitino is quick to acknowledge that, pointing out weaknesses of both the press and the zone, which has allowed better opponent three-point shooting than he would like.
“I think we’ve got to just continue to improve,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s really, really weak. I just think technique-wise we’ve got to get better … We’ve just got to get great defensively. We’re good right now, we’ve got to get great.”
It turns out Gophers fans didn't have to wait long for the matchup that was most highly anticipated after new coach Richard Pitino's hire at Minnesota.
The budding Gophers coach will lead his team against Louisville -- and his father, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino -- in next year's Armed Forces Classic on Nov. 14th, according to ESPN's Andy Katz. Both Pitinos have said recently that the move was in the works.
The game will take place in Puerto Rico, at the Coast Guard Academy's United States Air Station Borinquen.
This season's game, between Oregon and Georgetown, was played in South Korea.
The Pitinos coached against each other for the first time as head coaches last year, when Louisville defeated Florida International 79-55. Richard Pitino was an assistant coach for his father for three years (from 2007-09 and 2011-12) and then took the FIU head coaching job for the 2012-13 season.
Naturally, when the 31-year-old coach was hired at Minnesota, there were immediate questions about when he would face his dad, but the younger Pitino initially expressed hesitation, saying that he wasn't sure he was eager to so quickly become rivals with his dad, who has long been his mentor.
But after the Gophers returned from Hawaii last month, Pitino explained his change of heart:
"I just thought about it and I thought if we want to get to where we’re going, it’s all about elevating this program with everything we do," he said. "We want to get to the level of Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana, and I think one of those things you’ve got to do to do that is you’ve got to be innovative with your scheduling ... I think this is a great way to get our brand out there, to get people talking about Minnesota."
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