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 full game story on the 63-56 win over Penn State here.
This one was not the inspiring outing the Gophers had in their regular-season finale, or the raucous victory they had two games earlier, vs. Iowa (inconveniently helping to start an epic Hawkeyes tumble).
But the Penn State downing got the job done, and now Minnesota advances, getting an opportunity to face border-rival Wisconsin. A win tomorrow would probably spell an entry to the NCAA tournament. That other pesky bubble teams (Arkansas, California, Utah) lost tonight doesn’t hurt either.
On to the good and the bad:
*Austin Hollins has completely reversed his slump and then some. The senior went from seemingly being unable to toss a quarter into an open trash can to looking as dominant as he has in the Big Ten, in his career. With his game-high 18 points tonight, he has now compiled 75 in the last four games. It’s a pretty great time for him to go on a tear.
*Andre Hollins sat for long periods because of foul trouble, but then he came up big when Minnesota needed him, hitting that huge three-pointer with 15 seconds left to seal the win. The Gophers haven’t always shown they have a player who wants to and feels the burden to step up in those late-game moments, and his take-charge attitude was clutch. Will this spur a tear from this Hollins? Minnesota can only hope.
*Pretty good defense. In the last two games, the Gophers have held Penn State to .97 points per possession or fewer. But working that same magic against Wisconsin will be the real test.
*They continued their strong ball handling trend. In the last three games, Minnesota has had 12 turnovers or fewer. That might be the single most positive recent development.
*It wasn’t the most convincing win ever. The Gophers had those goofy stretches where they got sloppy, as we’ve seen plenty this season. They let Penn State ebb and flow; make run after run until the final run that nearly lost the game for Minnesota. A killer instinct has been lacking for most of the season.
*Minnesota allowed 15 offensive rebounds. We’ve seen this before too. The Gophers get lax on that end sometimes, getting lazy on the long rebounds, where Penn State really hurt them on Thursday. Against a better team, this could have been a big problem, but as it is, the Nittany Lions netted 13 second-chance points.
*Malik Smith is still not back. He made a huge three-pointer in the first half, but it was sandwiched between three other absolutely terrible shots, including an air ball. He’s trying to shoot himself out of this slump so badly, and to some extent you have to do that as a player. But Thursday, his shot selection was really hurting the team early.
Tonight's game tips at 5:30 CT and will be broadcast on ESPN2 and 1500-a.m.
The Gophers (7) have the upper hand when it comes to seeding in tonight's matchup against Penn State (10).
But in terms of exceptional players?
Earlier this week, the Big Ten media and coaches stated that edge goes to the Nittany Lions.
When the All-Big Ten teams and awards were announced on Monday, two Penn State players landed in the mix -- D.J. Newbill was named to the all-conference second team; Tim Frazier was named to the all-conference third team.
The Gophers? The only recognition came in the form of a pair of honorable mentions for Andre Hollins (from the media and the coaches) and DeAndre Mathieu (from the media).
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino plans to make sure his team remembers the discrepancy when they step onto the Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Thursday evening.
"It's not that I feel slight because there's a lot of really good players in this conference," he said. "But will I mention to them that there was no first, second, third, defensive, all-rookie, sixth man of the year? Yeah, I'll mention it to them.
"The teams that we're playing and the media that talked to us are the ones that chose it. You've got to use everything to our advantage, so I'll do my best to turn them on everybody."
The Gophers should need little motivation. Most agree that Minnesota -- firmly on the bubble for now -- need at the very least a win over the Nittany Lions if it want a chance at a bid in the NCAA tournament (and likely, they need one more victory after that).
Minnesota has already beaten Penn State twice this season, including an 18-point stomping over the Nittany Lions on Sunday, in the Gophers' last game of the regular season. But Penn State's talented backcourt ensures it has the opportunity to upset any team on a good night. Patrick Chambers' squad has won six conference games this season, including a sweep over Ohio State, and a win at Indiana -- something Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan all couldn't do.
On Sunday, Newbill and Frazier combined for 38 points, but the team mustered just 25 from everyone else.
In that game, the Gophers were able to capitalize on some advantages that normally don't exist. Penn State turned over the ball 16 times, something of a rarity for a team that normally handles the ball well. In the previous five games, the Nittany Lions had averaged just 10.2 turnovers a game. And the Gophers were able to get Mo Walker going in the post despite the Nittany Lions ranking first in the league in two-point defense. The big man finished with 16 points and the Gophers had 26 in the paint in all.
The trick for Minnesota is going to be to forget about all of that and treat tonight like a new game.
"This feels a lot like a new season for us," Walker said. "It's a new beginning for us. We've got a great chance to go out here and do big things in the Big Ten tournament. We've never won a Big Ten title here at the University of Minnesota so it's just another opportunity for us to make a lot of noise and get a run going leading up to the tournament."
If the Gophers win on Thursday, they will play Wisconsin in the second round on Friday. If not, they will head home and likely begin preparing for the NIT.
But whatever happens, the Gophers are looking at this season as a success already. After being picked by most to finish 9th by the media in the preseason, Minnesota finished in sole possession of 7th with an 8-10 record. Many thought the team didn't have NCAA tournament potential, yet here the Gophers are with an opportunity.
"I think 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, I'd say where do I sign up," Pitino said.
"Guys like DeAndre have come in and given us unbelievable minutes -- he was a bit of an unknown. When you bring a junior college kid in it usually takes time to adjust, but to his credit he's done that. Joey King was in the Missouri Valley last year and he's proved to be a very good piece to what we're trying to do. Mo hardly played. And to his credit he's become a very good player. Elliott [Eliason] has improved. Malik [Smith] was giving us a lot."
At the same time, while Minnesota may have overachieved from initial predictions, expectations are fluid -- what people anticipated at the start of the year morphs as players improve and the team shows it can play with good competition.
For better or for worse, when you win a few really strong games, the losses look worse.
"I think we've exceeded a lot of people's expectations, and I think we've probably exceeded our own," Andre Hollins said. "But at the same time I think we need to strive to be better, and we've shown glimpses of that."
The Big Ten tournament starts today, and I'm expecting a wild ride. Or not. This has been the craziest of seasons. Maybe the league'll cap it off by not having a single upset in the tourney. You never do know.
But even though making predictions seems almost silly at this point (have you seen my preseason attempts?) I'm going to do it anyway because, well, it's what I do, and it's also kind of fun. And on the off-chance that I'm right about everything, I'll look like a genius.
Here we go:
Winner: Nebraska -- This is probably a risky pick but it's going to make me look extra smart if it happens because I haven't seen anyone else do it. (If I gambled this way I would probably be broke.) But seriously, the Huskers have been playing at as high a level as any team in the conference lately. In their last three games, they have shot 35.6 percent from three-point range, averaged just eight turnovers a game and has held opponents to .94 points per possession or fewer in two of those. That's a strong recipe.
Most Outstanding Player: Terran Petteway -- He went through a few "slower" games (for a guy who has failed to reach double digits just once in the conference slate, that is), but the breakout transfer is back on the money now, lighting up the scoreboard for 26 against Wisconsin. I say he steps up again over the weekend, on a long Huskers run.
Early exit: Ohio State -- The Buckeyes have been anything but consistent this year, and while they've beaten first-round matchup Purdue twice, they've also had their fair share of head scratchers (swept by Penn State?) Although the Boilermakers have struggled (understatement here), their physicality and tenacity on the offensive glass gives them the chance to catch any team off-guard. Thursday, I say that's Ohio State, fresh off a huge victory over Michigan State.
Best potential matchup: Minnesota- Wisconsin -- If the Gophers can handle beating the Nittany Lions on Thursday, they get the Badgers on Friday. Rubber game between border rivals? What could be better. Minnesota would love to get another stab at the boys from Madison, and the latter would likely love to show the Gophers that January Thing They Shall Not Discuss was simply an anomaly. The wild card? Mo Walker. He was huge in the first meeting, throwing up his career-high, 18-point night. In the second matchup, he was in foul trouble almost instantly and had trouble finding his aggressiveness again. Would he be able to avoid such a game again?
Bold prediction: Iowa will make a big run -- I know, I know, but I'm just going to go all the way with this. I've been saying the Hawkeyes are primed to big things for a while now and now they seem capable of losing pickup games at the YMCA. I keep thinking they'll turn it around in convincing fashion; wake up and become that team we saw for the first half of the Big Ten schedule. And why not now? Aren't they angry yet? If I go down with this prediction, at least we'll know I've been all in, the whole way. And that should count for something, guys.
Perhaps it's because he looks at it as "put up or die," rather than "put up or be eliminated."
Perhaps it's because he loathes those rare moments when his smile washes away as much as those who watch the perpetually grinning guard do.
Perhaps the sudden urgency awakens a drive that isn't always stirred -- even if it should be.
But for whatever reason, Andre Hollins has made a habit of accelerating his game in the postseason.
"That's happened since high school -- I always take it up another level when it comes to the postseason," Hollins said. "Just the mentality, not wanting to go home early ... I just take that to heart and leave it all out there on the floor."
Last season, the guard had two of his highest-scoring games of the season in the NCAA tournament, notching 28 points against UCLA and 25 points against Florida. In his freshman campaign, Hollins exploded for career-highs of 25 and 21 points in the Big Ten tournament before continuing the surge in the NIT. In that postseason, he averaged 17.3 points a game after averaging 6.6 for the rest of the year.
This year, more than any, the Gophers could benefit from such a spark.
Hollins, who received an All-Big Ten honorable mention this week from both coaches and the media, severely sprained his left ankle in Minnesota's win against Wisconsin at home. Though he came back three games later, he hasn't looked like the same player since. In the last three games, the guard has managed 37 combined points, but he's seemed hesitant at times and untrusting in his own ability when he tries to drive to the hoop.
After the Gophers' season-finale win over Penn State on Sunday, Hollins said his ankle was "100 percent" healed.
"I think with his injury, a lot of it's been mental," coach Richard Pitino said. "He'll make some moves sometimes where he thinks he's about to go by a guy, but maybe that ankle's not as great as it's been. But I think he's got better basketball in him. So I hope it's in the postseason."
If there truly is an extra gear, its hard to understand why Hollins can't access it all the time.
Since the start of the Big Ten slate, Hollins has averaged 13.3 points a game -- 1.3 points fewer than he averaged through 18 league games a year ago. He has had nice performances, but he hasn't really taken the next step than many thought he would, and he's rarely taken over games in vintage fashion. With the Gophers' roster holding more scoring options than it has in the past, there are times where he appears indifferent about getting involved.
"I don't know if I had very, very high expectations," Pitino said of Hollins' season thus far. "I thought he was a good player and I think he is a good player. Then he got hurt and I think it slowed him down ... hopefully he's close because we need him."
New life from Hollins now would change the look of the team. With Austin Hollins coming out of his slump in the last three games, and point guard DeAndre Mathieu and center Mo Walker continuing to play at a high level, the Gophers offense seems to be peaking. But a fourth consistent scorer would give Minnesota even more options, and a larger safety net for "off-games" by others.
Hollins not without motivation. And maybe the confidence of a history packed full of postseason success will give him the extra nudge he needs.
"I love this time of year," he said. "It's put up or die ... The lights are on. It's win or go home. And I don't want to go home."
Five tidbits while I cross my fingers about getting to Indy in orderly fashion with all this weather.
1. My story on Daquein McNeil and everything he has been through to get here ran in today's Star Tribune. I hope you can read it.
2. Video: Michael Rand and I discuss what needs to happen at the Big Ten tournament in order for the Gophers to slip into the Big Dance.
3. More Video: The newest Raise The Barn -- entitled "Finish Strong" -- is here, with a big focus on strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown.
4. From ESPN's Myron Medcalf, what to look for in the Big Ten tournament.
5. Jace Frederick, this season's student reporter at Daily in the Barn (who did a great job all year) was dubbed our fashion reporter due to his proclivity to comment on shoes and suits at every opportunity. Fittingly, he wrote an entertaining piece on Richard Pitino's suit collection -- many of which may or may not have come from ol' papa.
"The selection committee meeting begins this morning. It won't be long before the first few dozen teams are in the field." -- @jppalmCBS
"I don't know that the Gophs show up with RESPECT shirts again but Frazier and Newbill both getting the [All Big Ten] honors is great victory fuel for BTT."
Random rankings: Thankfully I'm flying direct today (knock on wood), but I spend my fair share of time hanging out in airports. On a travel day, the top five airports to layover in:
1. Denver: There is so much quality retail here, and as a bonus, you might run into Seahawks Panties Lady.
2. Austin: This airport was awesome. BBQ galore. Unfortunately, there is rarely a need for me to go that way.
3. Minneapolis: Yes, I do sometimes layover in my own city. This is also where I obviously spend the most time. Luckily, it's pretty strong.
4. Indy: Everything is relatively easy for such a large airport. And if there's enough time, going back through security to snag some Cafe Patachou is worth it.
5. LAX: I'm sure I'm in the minority here. But there are just some really good eats. And if you don't have to go through security/drive anywhere, who cares? Lemonade would be one of my favorite spots even if I wasn't qualifying it for restaurant fare, I think.
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