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

Minnesota's top target, Konate, cancels trip to Tulane; will commit soon

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball, Gophers coaches, Gophers players Updated: April 18, 2014 - 11:00 PM

Minnesota's chances with it's top target looked a little more secure on Friday night, when Bakary Konate told the Star Tribune he had cancelled his official visit to Tulane.

"I told coach 'I am sorry,'" he said, referring to Tulane coach Ed Conroy. "I had to make my decision to stay here."

Now, the 2014 big man --  who has been the apple of Gophers coach Richard Pitino's eye for some time -- hopes to make his decision within the next couple of weeks.

The 6-11 Mali native has said publicly that his top schools include Minnesota, Texas A&M, Tulane and Creighton. Friday, Konate said he already knew what his eventual choice would be but he wanted to wait to announce it. 

Minnesota is the only of the four schools that he has visited. The center, who is currently playing at Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas, did not rule out trying to visit another school in the next week or two.

The Gophers badly need more size to step in behind Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker, who will each be in their last year of eligibility next season. Konate, who Pitino discovered while recruiting Sunrise's Lourawls 'Tum Tum' Nairn (who has since committed to Michigan State), appears to be a good fit for Minnesota's new system. While the 230-pound center likely will be expected to gain weight and strength, he runs well for his size and can shoot from distance. With Eliason and Walker around, the Gophers would have the luxury of bringing Konate along slowly and developing his post game.

Tennessee fans pick Pitino as fourth favorite for new coach in poll

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball, Gophers coaches, Gophers players Updated: April 18, 2014 - 5:17 PM

Minnesota coach Richard Pitino has publicly said he views Year One with the Gophers as a "great success."

Just how much did a 25-13 overall record, 8-10 campaign in the Big Ten and an NIT championship net the young coach?

Well, foremost he appears to have the support of his current fanbase, which is invaluable. Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague hasn't offered up a raise or extension of any kind so far, but generally there seem to be good vibes all around.

But Minnesota eyes weren't the only ones he caught with his positive start. The 2013-14 effort was enough to land him in some highly respected company in regards to at least one national job search.

After ESPN's Jeff Goodman reported on Wednesday that Pitino was on the University of Tennessee's "short list" for replacing Cuonzo Martin, things have been pretty quiet in the Volunteers camp.

Teague reiterated on Wednesday that Pitino, who has a $1.5 million buyout, is happy in Minnesota and is not interested in Tennessee. 

But Tennessee basketball fans seem interested in him.

A poll conducted by the Knoxville News Sentinel reveals Pitino as the fourth favorite for a new coach among the nearly 5,000 who participated. He received nine percent of votes behind Wichita State's Gregg Marshall (35 percent), VCU's Shaka Smart (18) and Southern Miss' Donnie Tyndall (9 percent also).

See the full poll here.

Does that mean Pitino is more likely to become the head coach? Of course not. There is still no evidence that Pitino -- who is not speaking with the media -- is even interested (although it's tough to believe he wouldn't at least be intrigued if Tennessee was serious).

Yet it's something Gophers fans should grow to expect in the next few seasons as long as Pitino finds success. With just two years as a head coach under his belt, Pitino is still extremely young in his career. These days, though, after watching the Shaka Smarts and Brad Stevens of the world excel quickly and consistently, rising stars are very attractive. Pitino's "stock" could certainly go up in the next few years. But pitted against an annually tough Big Ten slate, it could also go down. 

Minnesota hoping men's basketball recruiting heats up soon

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball, Gophers coaches, Gophers players Updated: April 17, 2014 - 10:11 AM

Rarely do programs experience a flurry of new recruits in the spring, but that's just what Minnesota is hoping for this season.

The Gophers still have three scholarships remaining for the 2014 class and just more than a month to fill them. The late signing period began on Wednesday and ends May 21. 

There are a couple of critical items on the checklist.

Foremost, Minnesota is in need of size. With centers Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker each looking at their last year of eligibility and the power forward position further thinned by the early retirement of Oto Osenieks, the Gophers covet depth and future stability at both positions. 

It also wouldn't hurt to add a versatile guard/wing to a corps that loses Austin Hollins and Maverick Ahanmisi this season. The Gophers are stacked at the point guard spot, with DeAndre Mathieu, Andre Hollins and Nate Mason all able to play the position but could use another option to come off the bench for shooting guard or small forward spots.

The trick is finding the clams amongst the shells. After a furious fall, the pickings are much slimmer in the spring, but it doesn't mean there aren't gems to be had.

Six-nine power forward Gaston Diedhiou, who currently plays in the Canary Islands of Spain, committed last week but has not yet signed. The Gophers anticipate his National Letter of Intent within the next day or two. Like most overseas players, Diedhiou, who originally hails from Senegal, will likely come to Minnesota very raw and certainly very unheralded.

Bakary Konate, a big man from Kansas by way of his home country of Mali, is still Minnesota's top prospect although he appears to be to flexing his options. Konate will officially visit Tulane this weekend according to rivals.com's Ryan James, who first reported the trip. While some have said a Minnesota commitment seems near, Konate has publicly said he has no timetable for a decision between his top schools, which include Creighton and Texas A&M (Minnesota Daily's Jace Frederick also reported Oklahoma as part of that mix). 

An option for another wing type player could be Justin Martin, a 6-6 soon-to-be graduate who announced last week he would transfer out of Xavier for his final season of eligibility. The forward averaged 11.7 points and 5.2 rebounds last season while averaging 37.3 percent of his shots from three-point range. He would be eligible right away via the graduate transfer rule.

New targets could emerge in the next couple of weeks as well. With a direct path to Division I looking more and more unlikely for Djuan Piper, the Gophers could turn their sights elsewhere. Right now, there isn't a ton of buzz in the way of guards.

A few other notes:

*Former Gophers guard Wally Ellenson intends to transfer elsewhere in order to compete in both basketball and high jumping, his mother, Holly Ellenson told the Star Tribune. Among the schools he's pursuing: Texas Tech, where Tubby Smith has again offered his former recruit, and Baylor.

*Minnesota video coordinator Casey Stanley has accepted an assistant coaching job at UNC-Wilmington under newly hired head coach (and former Louisville assistant) Kevin Keatts. Stanley worked for Pitino for two years, dating back to Florida International.

aMAILiaBAG: The year-end edition

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball, Gophers coaches, Gophers players Updated: April 16, 2014 - 3:53 PM

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:

1: Mathieu
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).

UPDATED Report: Minnesota's Richard Pitino could be among coaches considered in Tennessee's search

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball, Gophers coaches, Gophers players Updated: April 16, 2014 - 5:58 PM

At a barely ripe 32 years old, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino has already manned two head coaching jobs in his first two years with that title.

Tennessee might be hoping the Gophers coach is tempted to keep climbing the rungs.

ESPN's Jeff Goodman reported on Wednesday afternoon that Pitino is on Tennessee's "short list" for replacing Cuonzo Martin, who bolted for the University of California on Tuesday.

Minnesota Athletic Director Norwood Teague said on the Dan Barreiro show on KFAN that Pitino is not interested in the job.

Pitino could not be reached for comment on whether Tennessee has reached out.

Earlier in the day, an article written by USA Today's Nicole Auerbach listed Pitino as a name Volunteers AD Dave Hart could consider in Tennessee's scramble after Martin abruptly left.

Pitino just completed the first of six years laid out in his contract by directing Minnesota to an 8-10 record in the Big Ten and an NIT championship. He is currently making $1.2 million and has a $1.5 million buyout.

At face value, Tennessee doesn't seem like a logical move for Pitino, who was at Florida International for one year before taking the job at Minnesota. The Big Ten far outweighs the SEC in terms of competition and national respect. The public drama surrounding Martin's three-year tenure in Knoxville certainly doesn't make the job -- which will see its third head coach in four years -- any more attractive.

But the Volunteers, who had fallen on hard times before advancing to the Sweet Sixteen this season, also have plenty to offer. 

To start, there is the recent history of winning despite some recent ups and downs. This year's tournament run certainly put Tennessee back in the national spotlight. But the Volunteers are no strangers to the glare. It was the fifth time the program had advanced at least that far since 2000. What's more, the facilities in Knoxville are quite the change of pace from the Dinkytown digs. The nearly 22,000-seat Thompson-Boling arena is one of the more lavish examples in college basketball. The Volunteers also have a basketball practice facility -- complete with a weight room, training room and recruiting lounges -- that is just a few years old. Those assets, along with a tamer schedule, could conceivably make building a consistent competitor easier and more expedient.

And perhaps no one in the Midwest knows the value of Tennessee recruiting better than Minnesota, which boasted an all-Tennessee backcourt last season in Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins (both from the Memphis area) and DeAndre Mathieu, who hails from Volunteer country in Knoxville. 

The well of talent that brought Tennessee to its most recent success, however, will be substantially dried up next year. Junior Jarnell Stokes has already declared for the NBA draft. The Volunteers lose seniors Jeronne Maymon and Jordan McRae. And Martin's recently acquired 7-1 center, Kingsley Okoroh, who had committed just one day earlier, will instead follow his coach to Cal.

Goodman also mentioned Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall in connection with the Tennessee job. Auerbach included Tyndall, as well as VCU coach Shaka Smart, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, former UCLA coach Ben Howland, Xavier coach Chris Mack, Colorado coach Tad Boyle, Dayton coach Archie Miller, Belmont coach Rick Byrd, Louisiana Tech coach Michael White and Duke assistant Jeff Capel.

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