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
From the moment when Nate Mason signed his letter of intent to the University of Minnesota, the Gophers coaching staff hoped he'd benefit from the presence of the team's veteran backcourt.
Already, assistant Dan McHale sees that hope taking shape.
Mason, a 5-foot-11 combo guard from Georgia, has plenty of talent in his own right. The three-star recruit proved capable of scoring at the basket and from the perimeter at the high school level. Now, the freshman guard with the potential to root a sixth man role next season is working on honing those skills with the help of Gophers seniors Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu.
"They've really taken Nate under their wing," McHale said. "Learning from two seniors is the biggest advantage for him.
Mason has been grouped with the pair the summer in individual workouts, allowing him to exploit the similarities he shares with them. Like Mathieu, Mason is quick and crafty at finding gaps in the lane. Like Hollins, he can light it up from the outside. With the ability to play either point guard or shooting guard, McHale refers to him as "a younger version of Andre."
"He's got the best of both worlds," McHale said. "I think we could throw him out there at the start of Big Ten lay and put him at [point guard], but we also have the luxury of putting him off the ball."
This summer, the Gophers are looking for Mason to sharpen the overall aspects of his game while building the muscle necessary to stand up to the physicality of the Big Ten.
McHale made it clear that the team will need Mason to play a big role right away come fall. All the while, the coaches hope the year will act as an internship for a potential starting opportunity the following season. That's where looking to Mathieu and Hollins will come in.
"I can already tell," McHale said. "He just tries to emulate what they do."
Two days before the NBA draft, University of Minnesota incoming freshman Josh Martin texted his old high school pal, Zach LaVine, with a prediction:
'I think you're going to go to Minnesota!' he wrote.
LaVine laughed, telling Martin he'd love that coincidence.
But Martin, a 6-8 forward expected to compete for the Gophers' starting power forward spot, proved to be prophetic. A couple of days later, the Timberwolves selected LaVine with their 13th overall pick, reuniting the Washington state natives in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
"I said 'Man, that'd be crazy,'" LaVine said. "I guess you could say he called it."
LaVine -- who played with Martin for one season at Bothell High School, and ran the court with him for three summers on their AAU team -- hasn't hung out with his friend since landing in the Twin Cities, opting to let the freshman settle in first.
But soon, he said with a mischievous grin, the pair will be back to their old games.
Back in Bothell, a small suburb Northeast of Seattle and Lake Washington, LaVine and Martin would hang out at each other's houses or the mall from time to time, and get food together. The best bet to find them, though, would be in the gym, where the two hyper athletes would shoot together, play one-on-one or stage impromptu dunk contests.
Who would win?
"See, he's going to say him, but he's never beat me," LaVine said. "He's going to definitely have to bring something out of his bag of tricks to beat me."
LaVine hopes to keep up the tradition, perhaps rotating the setting. The Wolves guard wants to check out the university campus -- and drag teammates Glenn Robinson III and Shabazz Muhammad over to Williams Arena once games begin -- as well as bring Martin over to Target Center for the pro experience.
"We're going to keep it going," LaVine said. "Don't underestimate him. He'll get me one day, I know that."
LaVine said the only advice he's given Martin about the collegiate experience is to make sure he gets extra work in, and stays focused. Having witnessed his pal's routine for half a decade, LaVine knows those goals won't be a problem.
Martin, he said, is as serious about the game as they come -- his personality, though, is anything but.
"[He's] someone that's really goofy and outgoing and is definitely going to be an energizer bunny on the court," LaVine said, describing Martin. "An exciting player, and someone whose always going to be happy. He always had a smile on his face."
*Media is unable to speak with Minnesota's incoming freshmen over the summer, per team rules.
The 2014-15 season still seems far away, but for Minnesota, the year after is already off to a strong start.
Four-star point guard Kevin Dorsey became the program's first 2015 recruit after committing to the Gophers on Saturday.
Dorsey confirmed the news -- which was first reported by Scout reporter Evan Daniels -- via text.
The Gophers saw Dorsey in Washington D.C. this weekend -- the first of three evaluation periods in July -- where he played in a camp held by Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson.
The commitment from the talented Virginia guard marks a big early victory for Richard Pitino in his first "normal" recruiting class. The second-year head coach had to pull in a handful of newcomers for last season after being hired in April. The staff then had only about seven months to recruit 2014 prospects before the first signing period last year.
The 2015 class, however, is the staff's first chance to show what they can do when given a normal recruiting cycle.
The quick, 5-11 Dorsey, who is ranked No. 84 in the nation according to Rivals, seems to be a perfect fit for Pitino's free-moving, pick-and-roll offense and pressure defense. With current floor general DeAndre Mathieu expiring his final year of eligibility this season, the Gophers have been seeking a long-term heir.
Dorsey visited Minnesota's campus in late June. Recently, he had told reporters that his top three included fellow Big Ten teams Nebraska and Maryland, schools he had visited as well.
The non-conference tournament Minnesota is slated to participate in next season could be in flux.
If the tournament field does shrink by half, it would mean significant changes in the formatting, Katz reports. The four host teams -- Minnesota, St. John's, Gonzaga and Georgia -- would get only one home game instead of two, and the winner of each matchup would then play three games at Madison Square Garen rather than two.
According to Katz, Georgia basketball coach Mark Fox and Gonzaga basketball coach Mark Few are both waiting to see what will happen with the event, while St. John's coach Steve Lavin has reiterated that he is "all in."
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino did not immediately return a phone call for comment on the matter.
If the changes do occur, the Gophers would be stripped of one home game in return for another neutral-site matchup. The bigger concern would be if other host teams such as Gonzaga and Georgia back out, leaving Minnesota with either a significantly weakened tournament or in a last-minute scheduling crunch.
Does Richard Pitino want to stay in Minnesota a long time?
On the most superficial level, all signs point to yes. The Gophers coach, barreling toward his second season with the university, has said all the right things and seems to genuinely like his new job and life in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
That contentment will likely be tested whenever his dad, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, decides to step down.
Hamilton pointed out that Rick Pitino will surely be counseled in the matter of his heir. It's hard to believe pop wouldn't nod toward his son, who directed Florida International to its first winning season in more than a decade before bringing Minnesota an NIT championship last year.
Hamilton also named Mick Cronin (Cincinnati), Chris Mack (Xavier) and Shaka Smart (VCU) as potential top choices.
A call from Louisville is tough to ignore. Accepting the torch at a place his father has had so much success is also a lot of pressure.
Is Kid Pitino itching to leave Minnesota? I honestly don't think so. Should the younger Pitino find himself in the situation where he needs to make that choice, he could decide he'd rather remain with the Gophers and build his own legacy, rather than taking over his father's. Or he could find that Louisville is the best place to move forward.
Ultimately, of course, this kind of guessing game is useless. Rick Pitino said yesterday he believes he can continue to coach "for a long time," so the replacement search could be well down the road. Who knows -- young Richard could already be at another coaching destination then. Or the circumstances at Minnesota could be quite different.
As long as Richard Pitino stays at Minnesota and keeps the Gophers moving on an upward trend, however, the speculation will probably continue.
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