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
July is here and Minnesota summer basketball is well under way.
Four of the six newcomers who will be joining the Gophers in the upcoming season are on campus and beginning the integration -- guards Zach Lofton and Carlos Morris arrived in mid May, and combo guard Nate Mason and forward Josh Martin followed over Father's Day weekend.
Already, the preparation for next year has begun. The NCAA mandates that teams are allowed eight weeks of practices -- for two hours a week -- during the summer months, and programs can decide how they want to lay out their schedule within those constraints.
The Gophers began practicing the week of June 16th -- so they are midway through their third week back now.
"Last year was more hands on, practicing, implementing system, and learning how the guys worked," assistant coach Dan McHale said. "This year is more individual workouts, getting the guys stronger. It's been really good."
The early efforts are already showing. Several of the players have put on significant beneficial weight. DeAndre Mathieu has added in excess of ten pounds to his compact frame. Martin has packed on seven pounds of muscle in the short time he's been in Dinkytown. Joey King has put on more than 20 since this time last season. Morris, however, wins the prize for the summer so far, having tipped the scale by 16 pounds since arriving over Memorial Day weekend.
"A Shaun Brown special," said McHale, referencing the Gophers basketball strength and conditioning coach, who has each player on an individual program based on their needs.
Only the two foreign newcomers have yet to arrive. McHale said he hopes Mali native Bakary Konate, who is still in Kansas, and power forward and Senegal native Gaston Diedhiou, who is still in the Canary Islands, where he played last year, will arrive by mid August. Both are simply dealing with "a little international red tape," McHale said.
As the summer extends, the team's workouts will shift somewhat. The beginning of July brings three consecutive weeks of evaluation periods, meaning that the coaches will be on the road constantly from Wednesday through Sunday during the first, second and third full weeks of July.
In that time -- the first evaluation period begins July 9 -- the team will transition from mostly individual workouts to team practices on Mondays and Tuesday for one hour each. For the rest of the week, the players will work out with Brown individually, on a voluntary basis.
* According to a source, no official visits have been set up yet but several high school prospects are discussing dates. Most official visits are arranged in early August.
* In the meantime, a handful of 2015 targets have visited unofficially. Power forward Alex Illikainen, of Grand Rapids (who recently transferred to Brewster Academy in New Hampshire) and point guard Kevin Dorsey, of Virginia, both visited unofficially earlier this week while guard Jarvis Johnson, of Minneapolis and Dupree McBrayer, of New Jersey, were each in town earlier in June.
Former Minnesota point guard Al Nolen was pleased when, early in the Gophers non-conference schedule last year, he watched from the Williams Arena stands as tiny DeAndre Mathieu drove to the paint and peppered the basket with shots.
Nolen, a Minneapolis native and lifelong Gophers fan, was taken aback when he saw the gutty performances and a quick knack for leadership spring from the undersized guard as the season continued.
And even he'll admit it, Nolen was pretty darn surprised when he saw Mathieu maintain that tenacity, heart and occasional dominance throughout the challenging Big Ten slate.
But Nolen -- who is now the Dean of Students for Anthony Middle School in South Minneapolis -- didn't really get to know just who Mathieu is until this summer, when he had the opportunity to spend some time around the fellow floor general.
These days, Nolen comes around campus occasionally, and works out with the Gophers in their open gyms. There, he's watched a dedicated young player work to systematically improve a game that, a year ago, already impressed just about everyone who watched.
"I've got really high, high praise for DeAndre Mathieu," Nolen said in a phone interview on Monday. "I think he's an excellent player, and person. I've talked to him a little bit and he's really a good guy, he's really a hard worker. Watching him out there, he's a great leader on the floor, a lot of teammates look up to him. He's great with ball handling. He can get down there with the bigger players and score down low. I think he's really going to be key for Minnesota next year."
Nolen said he loved watching Mathieu -- the first true point guard Minnesota has had since he expired his eligibility in 2011 -- become the steady presence the Gophers were craving, especially with Andre Hollins enduring late-season injury woes and Austin Hollins largely inconsistent throughout the Big Ten schedule.
It was evident how the team gelled behind their new pacesetter, and how close Mathieu and new coach Richard Pitino became in the process. Nolen's critical eye noticed, too, how it was often Mathieu who represented the team to the media; the player who both bestowed the praise and took the fall.
"As an extension of the coach, you have to be a leader," Nolen said. "And that's exactly what DeAndre is. I'm pretty sure him and coach Pitino have the best relationship on the team because coach Pitino has to rely on him on the floor to basically get the guys to do what [he] wants.
"I think it's very important to come in and ... take the bull by the horn and be that leader, take responsibility, when it's good and when it's bad, be able to take criticism and handle yourself professionally. He's done a great job with that."
Now, Nolen sees a guard working hungrily to take the next steps. Mathieu -- who made his reputation by fearlessly driving into the paint and taking on guys who towered, head a shoulders, over him -- has already added in excess of ten pounds to his compact 5-foot-9 frame, according to strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown.
"He's definitely packing a lot of muscle," Nolen said of the guard that averaged 12 points and 4.2 assists in his first Big Ten season after transferring from Central Arizona College. "When I've seen him this summer, he looked a lot stronger, quicker, his jump shot looked great. He looked like he's really been focused and really been working hard."
And when Mathieu leaves the weight room, he goes straight to the court, where he's putting up shot after shot on his own. A year ago, Mathieu shot 51.1 percent from the field, and 48.9 percent from three-point range, but often seemed much more comfortable steamrolling to the rim in traffic than stepping back to take a shot from the perimeter.
"After seeing him play, I know a lot of people thought he needed to improve on his shooting and I'll say this summer, he's definitely improved on that," Nolen said. "He's definitely improved his shot. I think he's just been in the gym a lot more. With shooting, it's confidence he's getting in the gym and getting that confidence to knock down that shot."
The workload, along with the Knoxville native's gritty style of play and seemingly limitless passion, is enough to earn Mathieu a new nickname, at least when Nolen is around.
"I like to call him Mighty Mouse," the alum said. "He's the littlest guy on the floor, but then he'll surprise you, going down there with the big guys, coming in real physical."
Nolen would be lying, too, if he didn't say the rising senior reminds him a little of himself: a tough point guard who doesn't shy away from contact, and who seems to salivate at mismatches and folks who don't believe he's good enough.
But because he respects Mathieu's intellect and work ethic so much, Nolen said the only words close to advice he's doled out to the younger guard are simply reminders to keep being his hard-nosed self.
Next year, Nolen knows, with the Big Ten having been put on notice last season, th goal will only become more challenging. Everyone's anticipation will grow, including Nolen's.
"He definitely was a piece that they needed and he's really exceeded my expectations," Nolen said. "So I have higher ones for him now, this next year, knowing how good he is."
This past winter, Oto Osenieks made the tough decision to leave behind one major facet of his life and begin the next phase.
Positioned directly at the intersection of the past (Osenieks' playing career at Minnesota) and the future (pursuing his second dream, to coach) is surgery on his left knee.
That knee, which has chronically bothered Osenieks, was the cause of his early retirement from playing. The surgery, which Osenieks told the Star Tribune he will have on Tuesday, will hopefully allow him the stability to continue with what's to come.
"I am relieved," Osenieks told the Star Tribune via text. "I just wish they could fix it so I could play."
Instead, the former Gopher forward plans to stay on with the team as a graduate assistant this fall.
Osenieks, 24, had one year of eligibility remaining due to redshirting his freshman year, but made the decision to forego it after the pain in his knee resurfaced last season. The 6-foot-8 native of Latvia manned the power forward spot in the starting rotation at the beginning of the year last season and started for 23 of his 31 games. After being replaced in the opening lineup by Joey King, Osenieks came off the bench for a handful of games before sitting for the first time, in Minnesota's home game vs. Iowa on Feb. 25. Shortly afterward, the university announced that Osenieks' playing career was done.
He averaged 5.3 points and 2.8 rebounds on the year, shooting 29.5 percent from three-point range while achieving new career highs in points (14 -- on Nov. 21) and rebounds (6 -- on Jan. 2).
On senior night, coach Richard Pitino brought in Osenieks -- who was honored that night, along with the rest of the seniors -- as a late substitution off the bench, for a few seconds against Penn State. The forward later played spot minutes against Florida State and SMU in the Gophers' NIT semi-final and championship games, helping to plug holes with Elliott Eliason's ankle injury and King's foul trouble creating depth issues in the frontcourt.
The concern has always been that prolonged time on the court -- with bone grinding against bone -- would prevent Osenieks from having a normal life after his college career.
On Tuesday, Osenieks' knee will be "scoped out," he said, to remove the cartilage that has been building and then smoothen the bones in the joint and the back of his knee cap. He hopes the result will be that he's able to function normally and help coach the team through drills next season.
Osenieks has had two previous surgeries on the knee, in Latvia.
The NBA draft came and went yesterday, and as expected, Austin Hollins' name wasn't called. It has now been ten years since a single Gopher has been drafted. But that doesn't mean Hollins doesn't have opportunities ahead. The four-year Minnesota player received invites to three pre-draft workouts, and hopes to catch on with a summer league team soon.
After the Timberwolves brought Hollins in for his first pro workout, in late May, the Memphis native crammed in two more this week. Hollins was preparing to head to Indiana for a session with the Pacers, when his agent, Teddy Archer, called to inform him that Sacramento wanted to bring him in as well. Hollins flew into Sacramento to work out on Monday, then caught a late flight back to the Midwest, arriving in Indiana around 2 a.m. before working out with the team later that morning, on about four hours of sleep.
"Once you get in there and warmed up, it's fine," Hollins said. "There are some nights during the year, being a college student where you've got homework to do so you're up at night trying to finish something and then you've got to practice the next day, go to class and you're only getting four or five hours of sleep. So it's not the first time I've gotten a little amount of sleep and had to go work out."
With his future still ahead of him, bright but uncertain, I caught up with Hollins to talk a little about the past four years, the team without him and his next moves.
You ended up getting invited to three professional workouts. How was that experience for you?
The overall experience has been fun. I'm just taking it all in. I didn't have a ton of workouts, but I just tried to make the most out of the ones I did have. It's a blessing to be in this position to have an opportunity to work out for these teams. So I've had a lot of fun and I've enjoyed the process.
How did those workouts differ from each other?
As far as the workouts themselves, I think most of them were pretty similar. With all the teams, you do some shooting, you do some dribbling, then they want to see you compete. They want to see how competitive you are, they want to see what you can do. You can't always control your shots going in, but you can control your effort. So they kind of look for that as well.
You mentioned that you're working with a couple of different trainers in Minneapolis right now. How does what you're doing with them differ from what you did at the university?
The only difference would probably just be more reps and more time put into it. With Minnesota, you've got the time limits. When you're doing the individual workout, you can only go for so long in the summer time and during the year, you only get so much time to do that kind of stuff. So now there's really no limit to what we can do ... all of these NBA workouts are anywhere from an hour and 15 minutes to an hour and 45 or two hours. So you've got to be in pretty good shape. A lot of them like to do full-court stuff and it's minimal guys, you've got 4-6 guys out there and you're doing full-court stuff so you've got to be able to catch your breath and get up and down the floor. So we try to get a good amount of time in so I'm kind of ready for that when it comes along.
You ended the year around 190 pounds. Are you trying to put on any more bulk at all or are you happy with where you are?
I would like to put on some more weight but right now, I'm just trying to maintain the weight that I have and try to sustain that. It's tough during the season to put on weight because we're going every day and sweating. Especially for me.
How does the amount of down time you have now compare with the last four years?
I definitely have more free time. I'm not in school anymore. That's huge. I don't have homework. So really, it's just working out, sometimes a couple times a day. But in between, I have plenty of time to do whatever.
What are you filling up all your extra free time with?
Sleeping ... (laughs)
There's not a whole lot I do, I usually try and rest for the most part. I've been here for four years, there isn't a whole lot that I haven't done that I want to do. If something comes up, I just play it by ear.
I've seen you talk about your poetry on social media. Is that something you've done for a long time?
For about five years I want to say, I've been doing that. I have a number of them written up. Occasionally, I'll post them just to get some feedback just to see. But it is something that I enjoy doing in my free time.
There was a point I used to hate writing. I used to hate English. In seventh grade I had a teacher, she used to just criticize my work really hard. My dad just found that hilarious and he doesn't let me live it down because she had red marks all over my papers. From that day forward, I still didn't enjoy English as much but I think I just learned to improve and appreciate it and then just found a passion for expressing my thoughts through writing.
I know you're planning to mostly be in Minneapolis, other than wherever you for any summer camps Are you going to be hanging around the Gophers at all this summer?
I play open gym with them usually. They have their own workouts that they're doing and I've got my own schedule. But when they have open gym I try to get in there with those guys.
Where do you think the team has the ability to improve the most?
I think experience is going to be huge for him. I think this year was a great year for some of the new guys coming in, especially DeAndre and a lot of guys who didn't get a ton of minutes [the year before]. Mo got a lot more minutes than he had in the past, and I think he really improved. Now that he's got his weight down, just keeping that and getting stronger and quicker is going to help him out. They've got a lot of good pieces coming in, and they've got most of the guys coming back, along with six new guys coming in. Four starters coming back. So I think that experience really helped them. And I think ending the season on a win like that, really has them confident, they know what they can accomplish. I know coach [Richard] Pitino has them working extremely hard and I know the guys are eager to work hard and they're eager for next season to get into the NCAA tournament because we missed it by an inch. Another win here or there and we might have been in there. So I think the guys are looking at that, and they're working extremely hard to try and get in there next season.
How did you feel like the adjustment to Pitino was for the team? What was the hardest part?
I thought the adjustment was great. Coach Pitino came in with a plan, he really executed it and he told us exactly what his expectations were and guys really bought in right away. I don't think there was ever a problem with the coaching change to adjust to how he coaches or the new coaching staff. I think the biggest adjustment was the style of play and the conditioning factor. Because although we thought we were a well-conditioned team in the past, we were much more conditioned this year. A lot of guys will tell you themselves that they're probably in the best shape they've been in since they've been here. So that's a tribute to Shaun Brown, who put us through a lot of drills, a lot of conditioning things. It was kind of gradual, we started in the summer and we did some things that we didn't quite understand at the time, but as you go on, those things contribute to being in shape. Gradually it's getting harder and and harder but your body is getting used to it as you go on. I think by the time the season started, and we're doing two-a-days on individuals and lifting and then going to practice, we were pretty ready for that when the time came. And it made the game that much easier.
What was one of those things that you guys maybe didn't understand at first?
We did some running on the treadmill that we weren't used to. There's a setting where you have to make the treadmill go on your own will. You have to use your feet to make the treadmill move and it's on an incline so you have to sprint as fast as you can. And once the treadmill gets going, it's just going to keep moving faster and faster. You have to run for like 30 seconds and guys were not used to that -- especially the guys that might have been out of shape or trying to lose weight. To do that, for 30 seconds, then five or six of those, it's really tough. It doesn't sound that tough but once you get on there and you get running, it's tough.
Pitino kind of shifted the work outs to Bierman and made some improvements there. Was that a big deal for you guys?
Definitely. It was much more convenient in that Bierman is much closer to where all the guys live. It's more central to all of the classes, and then you have the weight room in there. So now we're coming in and doing individual workouts, you don't have to cross the street to Mariucci to lift, you just go right next door. And then you can come back and practice, and everything was right there. So it was definitely more convenient and I think it did make a difference ... we got basically a brand new weight room upstairs, it's really nice.
Do you feel like a practice facility is still a necessity for the program?
I've never really felt like the practice facility was a necessitty. Yeah, it was something that we wanted, but I don't think it's really a necessity. Bierman has a court that we have access to and the weight room is right next door. They made renovations in there with the weight room and everything, so you really have everything you need right there. Yeah, a practice facility would be an ideal situation, but what we have, Bierman and that facility works.
What about Williams Arena? Obviously there are those that love and cherish it and those that want to tear it down. How did you like playing there for four years?
I loved playing at Williams. I mean, yeah, the building is a little old, but I think it's really unique. There are a lot of people that have been around for a long time with season tickets that come and support us. When the Big Ten starts and the Barn fills up, it gets really loud in there. I just think it was a unique experience to be able to play there. The raised floor, that's just different, and I think it's a tough environment to play in as well.
Favorite moment of last year?
The NIT championship, of course.
What about from your career?
I'd have to say the same thing -- the NIT championship. Beating No. 1 Indiana [in 2013] was up there, but I think going out with a win was probably the best thing that happened over my career.
That's tough to say. Every time you lose a game you think you're supposed to win, it's tough. Probably that Northwestern game at home. We had a chance to win it at the very end and the layup just came off a little long. Or the triple overtime game at Purdue that we lost ... all the losses, they're all the same, whether it was close or whether it was a blowout. Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament -- we win that game, we're possibly in the tournament so just little things like that are tough to deal with.
Andre sprained his ankle severely in January and never quite looked the same after that. Do you think his ankle and his hip was bothering him more than he was letting on?
No, I think Andre is a tough guy. I mean, I know his ankle was bothering him, and it's tough to come back from those ankle injuries. Especially when he came back, as competitive as he is, he just wanted to be out on the floor. I don't think he was hurting more than what he was saying and it was, I don't think that was affecting him because he has such a competitive spirit, he's going to go out there and do the best that he can. So if his ankle was bothering him, he's going to go out there and give the best of his ability with whatever percentage his ankle is at. Once that adrenaline gets going and you get loose, it's tough to say. But everyone has those nicks and bruises, especially toward the end of the season, that you're trying to deal with, and you're just trying to fight through it as best as you can.
Who would you say was the most improved last year?
I'd have to give it to one of the big men, either Elliott or Mo. Those guys made complete transformations of their bodies, came in this year and really did some damage. So if I had to say most improved, it would have to go to those two and the work they put in.
What about the biggest surprise?
I'd have to give that to DeAndre. Because we knew how talented he was coming in, and we knew what he was capable of. But it's tough to come in and do what he did and be as consistent as he was in his first Big Ten season. Not being used to playing in the Big Ten, and coming in and doing what he did, that was huge. I know he didn't have perfect games every game, but he was probably the most consistent player on the team, by far, when it came to Big Ten play.
Daquein McNeil got some tastes of Big Ten action in his freshman year -- do you think he'll be ready for a bigger role this year?
Oh definitely. I have no doubt in my mind that Daquein will be ready next year. He's got a bright future in front of him. He works extremely hard and I think he was just taking it all in and taking advantage of those opportunities he got. I think next year, he'll definitely be ready to compete with the guys that are coming in and try to take that starting spot.
In today's Star Tribune: Gophers' drought in the NBA draft expected to reach a decade tomorrow.
Read part one of Amir Coffey's story here.
Growing up, Saturdays brought no reprieve for Amir Coffey.
Just like every other day, he and his two sisters, Sydney and Nia, would be rustled from sleep at the crack of dawn by their father, Richard Coffey -- a basketball under his arm and a mission in his mind.
Off to the gym they would go, the foursome enacting what surely would have looked like a mini basketball camp from the outside. The three kids would dribble -- for an hour or more, the father instructing them to practice crossing over, changing speeds, in-and-outs. Over and over. They would shoot, from all over the court.
The workouts -- which Richard deemed training -- didn't go without some protest. During the year, the Coffeys would train before school and after basketball practice, sometimes for as long as two and a half hours. The three kids would turn down movies and outings with their friends because of the schedule enacted by their father.
"In the beginning, they really didn't understand it," said Coffey, who played baskeball at the University of Minnesota from 1986 to 1990 before a brief stint with the Minnesota Timberwolves. "We stuck with it ... they sacrificed a lot. But they did it."
It's no coincidence where all three are now, Coffey staunchy believes. Both girls are thriving at Division I schools -- Sydney is at Marist, Nia, at Northwestern. Rivals currently ranks Amir at No. 34 in the 2016 national class, and the 6-7 guard Hopkins guard has already compiled seven scholarships heading into his junior season.
The elder Coffey saw the potential early. All he did, he says, was tap it.
All three of his children began walking before the age of 1, with Amir first taking to his feet at a green eight months. Coffey began training him -- having him dribble in the backyard, in the basement -- by he time he was a year old.
"I knew they were athletic," Coffey said. "And the one thing I had in me that I knew I could give to them was basketball ... I grew up in an era where, my parents didn't really know a lot about basketball so I didn't really train a lot in basketball. I just played pickup, but no one pulled me aside and said hey, work on your dribble or work on your shot."
As such, he wanted to make sure Amir didn't grow up to realize the same scenario he did: standing at 6-foot-6 and aspiring to play in the NBA, he didn't have the necessary ball-handling skills for a long career. Coffey directed his son to a different future. When in the first grade, Amir was trying out for a third-grade team, the youth coach positioned the Hopkins native at power forward.
"I said 'No,'" Coffey said. "And then at that point, I decided to start my own basketball program so he could play the [point guard]. And that's what I did."
Amir played for Minneapolis Select, his father's team, for six years, all the while honing the passing and dribbling skills that have excited collegiate programs ranging from North Carolina to Kansas to Wisconsin -- which was the latest program to offer, earlier this week.
For Amir, the training hasn't stopped, but it has changed as he's sprouted six inches in the last two seasons to his current 6-foot-7 height, his shoulder now exceeding that of his father's.
Wanting his son to keep his quickness and lateral movement and avoid becoming bulky, as he did, Coffey held off starting Amir's weight training until about three months ago. He now trains with an Eden Prarie professional named Tony Wilson. Amir is also consuming about five meals a day -- plus milkshakes made from ice cream and protein mix at night -- in an attempt to keep up with his workouts and add muscle. "I'm trying to get as many calories in him as I possibly can," Coffey said. Right now, Amir weighs about 180 pounds -- his dad hopes he'll add 8-10 pounds before November.
"You have to become single-minded focused right now if you're going to get to that top level," Coffey said. "Now we have to start doing the things that take [Amir] from good to great."
Now, he's still a kid. Coffey chuckled while remarking that Amir would rather be playing Nintendo with his friends than worry about the schools that are recruiting him. "I love that about him," the father said.
Still, he knows the prime of his son's recruitment is just around the corner. He hopes he's prepared him. He remembers, fondly, when Nia stood at the podium at her high school banquet and told the crowd "I didn't understand why dad would make us get up and go to the gym so much. But now, I understand."
"That was pretty cool," Coffey said. "I think they're in a position now where they can reap some of those rewards ... To know that all the work [Amir has] done over the years is paying off is really a cool thing."
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