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
Three observations from tonight's 92-57 win over Seattle:
The new walk-on is interesting. One day after Minnesota announced that 6-foot-3 Wisconsin native Mike Lukashewich would join the team, the freshman guard dipped his feet in the pool -- getting four minutes, one of those coming in the first half, of the Minnesota win. Almost instantly, Lukashewich blocked a three-point shot. Afterward, the guard, who played high school ball in Appleton, Wisc., said he received a few DII and DIII scholarships but decided to focus on his studies instead. "I'm excited about him," coach Richard Pitino said. "I think he's a valuable addition."
No Gas yet, but still wouldn't be surprised to see him on Monday. International freshman big, Gaston Diedhiou, didn't make it off the bench in the first game he was eligible for on Friday. Then again, Diedhiou hadn't practiced with the team at all, just learning of his status as the team was finishing up yesterday. Pitino said he wanted to ensure that Diedhiou can at least handle himself in some throwaway minutes before he stripped away any redshirt possibility. The coach wouldn't elaborate on his plans for the 6-foot-9 power forward, given that he has yet to fully evaluate him, but he said he's operating as if Diedhiou can help the team this year.
This team is getting better. I legitimately got a little more excited about Big Ten play tonight. This Minnesota squad certainly isn't without its flaws, the lack of rebounding chief among them. But I will say this: I've seen marked improvement since the start of the season in almost every category. The Gophers are moving the ball better. They're taking better shots. Their offense is versatile and their defense is enormously improved from a year ago, at least from what we've seen so far. The pace is great. And individually, guys seem to be getting better. DeAndre Mathieu, a real distributor this season, has been the defensive gnat he set his sights on. Andre Hollins isn't far behind. Carlos Morris is getting better by the day. Even Charles Buggs and Bakary Konate look to be taking steps. Mo Walker is looking more and more like the X factor that could allow this team to leap-frog other middle meddlers in the league. I don't want to gush, but I think I'm gushing.
Anyway, let's start the Big Ten already.
Tonight’s game vs. Seattle tips at 7 p.m. Watch on Big Ten Network (finally!) or listen live on 1500-a.m.
Five things to watch:
Gas sighting. Get familiar -- everyone calls international recruit Gaston Diedhiou "Gas." For the past month and a half, we’ve grown used to seeing him in the bleachers watching Minnesota play from afar. On Friday, the freshman – who officially joined the team yesterday after a new English proficiency test was approved by admissions – will be on the bench and could get a few minutes of action if this game ends up being a blowout. He hasn’t been able to practice with the team and no one has seen him play, so it will be quite interesting to see how he looks and whether he might be able to impact the team at all this year. My guess is he will be akin to Bakary Konate – talented but quite raw. Still, both will play big roles next year and so whatever minutes they get will be valuable.
Watch out for the Redhawks’ size. Seattle has some legitimate size on the team and is not at all shabby on the boards – the Redhawks rank 47th in the nation in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages per KenPom and have four players size 6-foot-9 or taller who play at least 10 minutes a game. The 6-foot-11 Jack Crook is the starting center and he’s backed up by another 6-11 guy, Theo Turner. They don’t have the skill that Mo Walker does, but right now as a group they are definitely rebounding better. Whether they can turn all those chances into buckets is another question.
Any rust? Minnesota is coming back from an eight-day layoff from games in which the players have had to all study for and go through finals. The holidays – and a couple days at home for most Gophers – are approaching. Will they be able to shake off the off-week, put aside the upcoming break and come out hard? We’ll see.
Buggs’ development. The Big Ten slate, now, is just around the corner and Charles Buggs, like it or not, is going to be a huge part of it. The redshirt sophomore is in a bit of a tough situation, backing up both Carlos Morris at small forward and Joey King at power forward, and learning on the fly as he averaged just 6.7 minutes a game in his first year last year. He’s already shown he can hit some shots – he has a quick release both on the perimeter and under the basket. But in the other areas – defense, rebounding and overall focus – he can be a liability. The Gophers would like to see a little bit of improvement, every night.
Another big night for Andre? Senior guard Andre Hollins has been stroking it so far this year and has already collected three 20-plus point games, but if you’ll recall, that was the case last year as well. Hollins had three 20-plus games in the first ten and eight games scoring in double digits – one more than this year. The difference, so far, has been his hot touch from three-point range. Always a good shooter, Hollins hit 21 threes through ten games last year but has 28 already this season. But the Memphis native has been known for being inconsistent throughout his previous three years. If Hollins now wants not only to prove he’s the player he was before he got hurt but also take the next step, he’s got to bring it every night.
The DEETS. Tonight's game vs. Seattle tips off at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on Big Ten Network and 1500-AM.
The READING. Yesterday afternoon, international freshman big Gaston Diedhiou joined the team after Minnesota's office of admissions approved his new English proficiency test score. The Gophers also added a new walk-on -- 6-3 guard Mike Lukashewich. After an early season marked by drama and attrition, it was a day to help build up a diminished roster.
The BUZZ. Perhaps you saw the Vine of Bakary Konate catching a pass -- a football, that is -- from Richard Pitino that the coach posted on Twitter recently. No, he's not trying to transition his freshman big man to Jerry Kill's squad. He's working to get Konate stronger with his paws. "We've just got time now, just because finals are over so just trying to get creative with him," Pitino said. "Obviously his hands need to get better. We did that at Florida [when he was an assistant under Billy Donovan] with a couple of kids ... So just trying to keep it fresh, keep it light. He enjoyed it.
The NUMBERS. Through ten games, the statistics show a big change in Minnesota basketball. The Gophers are No. 1 in the nation in assists. They're getting plenty of love from KenPom too. The Gophers are third in defensive turnover percentage and fourth in steals. What's more, after landed at 257th in adjusted tempo a year ago, Minnesota sits at No. 20 now. Pitino isn't putting much stock in the "improvements" yet. The Gophers have traditionally played their fastest ball -- like many Big Ten teams -- in the non-conference schedule. KenPom also, by the way, has the Gophers winning just two games on the road in conference play. The real differencemaker, Pitino believes, is the teams' stealing prowess. That affects the assists and the tempo. "Why do we have so many possessions? We have so many possessions because of steals," he said. "I don't know. It's still early. The stats are nice but it's still really, really early and obviously the competition is about to get a lot tougher."
The PLAYER. Center Mo Walker didn't play for the first six games of last season, having been suspended for reasons Minnesota never revealed. But through the first ten games he did play, Walker compiled 17 field goals in 31 attempts, good for a .548 shooting percentage -- not bad. This year, he's in a different role -- starting rather than coming off the bench, and he's compiled 202 minutes vs. 133 minutes through ten last year. Still, it's impressive how much more he's been targeted, and how even more efficient he's been. Leading up to tonight's game vs. Seattle, Walker has had 47 field goals in 74 attempts -- leading the team with his .635 shooting percentage. "I've played with [his teammates] for a number of years now, so they're starting to learn more ways to get me the ball," Walker said.
International freshman recruit Gaston Diedhiou has taken his second English proficiency test and submitted the results for review, University of Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said on Thursday.
Now, the team just has to wait a little longer to find out whether they'll add another post player to the roster before the start of Big Ten play.
"Any day now," Pitino said.
Minnesota's Office of Admissions has to approve the new test score -- for which there is no baseline.
Admissions director Rachelle Hernandez denied Diedhiou -- who has been living on campus and participating in English intensive courses -- the first time around, after he had passed the NCAA Clearinghouse this summer.
If she and her staff chose to reverse that decision based on the new score, Diedhiou could join the team right away and be available in the next game, whenever that might be.
Pitino, though, isn't getting his hopes up for how much help that would bring to a squad who currently has just two true post players on the roster.
Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason man the center spot while Joey King is backed up by Charles Buggs at the power forward -- but both are more of stretch-4, wing-type players than bangers under the basket. International freshman Bakary Konate has the upside to be a strong post player eventually, but is so raw he likely won't play much in the Big Ten slate.
Diedhiou could be similar in how much times he needs to adjust to the college game -- only without the 71 minutes of experiences Konate has gotten so far this season, Pitino said.
"I don't have a whole lot of expectations for him right now, immediately," he said. "That's what those guys need. Playing time."
Diedhiou has been able to use the facilities while enrolled as a non-student in his English program, but can't work out or practice with the team.
Pitino said he doesn't yet know when they'll hear back from admissions.
"I honestly have no timetable," he said. "I would have thought (by now). We're waiting. Everything is done, we're waiting on word."
The University of Minnesota earned consecutive Big Ten honors on Monday when center Mo Walker was named player of the week, seven days after guard Andre Hollins got the nod.
The starting big man compiled 33 points and 13 rebounds in two games last week, including a 22-point, seven-rebound, three-block performance in a 92-56 win over North Dakota.
Walker, who was honored for the first time in his career, is averaging 11.2 points and 5.3 rebounds on the year, and has blocked a team-high 18 shots. His 63.5 percent shooting ranks fifth in the league so far this year.
The Gophers have had back-to-back Players of the Week just once before -- in 2002, when Travarus Bennett (Jan. 28) and Rick Rickert (Feb. 4) were named in consecutive weeks.
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