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
Five tidbits while I recover from the weird night of podcasting that was:
1. If you haven't checked it out yet, in today's Star Tribune: in a year where the defense has been up and down, the Gophers' offense has carried them.
2. Since Sunday's win over Penn State, the Gophers effective field goal percentage has gone from 94th in the country (51.4) to 79th nationwide (51.7) and their two-point field goal percentage, from 84th (50.6) to 68th (51.2), according to kenpom.com.
3. The Big Ten announced its season-end awards last night, and both Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu received honorable mentions -- the former from both the coaches and the media, and the later from just the media. Although Hollins has been struggling through an ankle injury sustained in January, he remains the team's leading scorer, ranking 12th in the Big Ten with 14.6 points per game. Mathieu, who transferred from Central Arizona College before the season, lands at fourth in the Big Ten in assists with 4.4 per game. He is the Gophers' second leading scorer, averaging 11.9 points. The full All-Big Ten teams and awards, here. On that note, I dug up my preseason predictions ... oy. First team is prety much in shambles, as are the rankings. (I'm sorry I didn't believe in you, Tim Miles.)
4. As you start watching the conference tournaments, this tracker is a useful tool.
5. Recruiting update: Good Q&A with 2016 recruit Amir Coffey (Hopkins) by Gopherhole.
"Junior center Mo Walker led the league in field goal percentage this year in Big Ten games at 62.6 percent." -- @GophersNow
"#gophers finish season as worst defensive team in the #B1G by .001 per possession. Steady improvement recently though." -- @FromTheBarn
"The Big Ten will only get better next year w addition of Maryland. Terps return everyone, add Romelo Trimble, Dion Wiley, Jared Nickens." -- @JonRothstein
Random Rankings: 1990s sitcoms:
1. Seinfeld: If anyone disagrees, we're no longer friends.
2. Sports Night: It was Newsroom before Newsroom. About my dream career! Perfect.
3. Sex and the City: For some reason I feel a little bit of shame here, but it's a really good show, y'all.
4. Friends: I'll be there for you too, any time the Embryos-Miss Chanandler Bong episode is on re-run.
5. Boy Meets World: 1500's Nate Sandell will take great exception to the lowness of this ranking.
Richard Pitino is hoping that lessons learned bring new results.
The first rapid-fire tournament setting he coached the Gophers through did not go well.
At the Maui Invitational, the Thanksgiving tournament Minnesota participated in this year, the Gophers got a rough first-round matchup in Syracuse, but it was that game that turned out to be the highlight.
Minnesota stayed close with the Orange before falling 67-75. The next day, however, the Gophers crumbled against Arkansas, and on the final morning threatened to drop even the contest for last place to Chaminade, the tournament's only Division II team.
Ultimately, the Gophers escaped the mid-game deficit and pulled out the 83-68 victory, but it was tough to consider the trip a success (for them at least; personally, I got a fantastic tan). By the end of it, Minnesota simply seemed exhausted.
If the Gophers achieve their goals now -- in the week before the Penn State finale, Pitino had been emphasizing five wins in five games, Mo Walker said -- they'll have to play a similar schedule at the Big Ten tournament, which starts Thursday with an opening matchup against Penn State.
"Maui taught me a little bit too, what to do, to understand legs and so on," Pitino said "So you're playing hopefully four games in four nights, and we’ve got to be aware of that."
One major difference, he pointed out, are the game times.
In Hawaii, once the Gophers fell to the loser's bracket, they played the earliest game each of the last two days -- both falling around 9 a.m. local time. Minnesota was 1-3 in games played before 4 p.m. in the league slate this season. In Indianapolis, the Gophers will play in the evening bracket, with their first game tipping at 6:30 ET.
Still, coach and players seemed to agree that the greatest battles next weekend will be mental.
Monday and Tuesday, the Gophers will work to correct their own mistakes -- perhaps the greatest being mental lapses, and turnovers -- before continuing with prep on the Nittany Lions.
Minnesota obviously played with great confidence on Sunday, but the Gophers have experienced several major letdowns this season -- losing by 21 at Iowa after the Ohio State win, losing to Nebraska after the Wisconsin win and falling at home to Illinois after picking up just their second road win of the league schedule, at Northwestern.
"I think the mental part is the biggest key to making a run this late because everybody has their injuries, everybody is beat up and it's March," Andre Hollins said. "It's that mind frame, going into practice, going into everything you do. Taking care of your body and coming out, get ready to play, being ready as a team."
Five tidbits while I gear up for the Big Ten tournament:
1. In today's Star Tribune, my game story from the Gophers' 81-63 victory over Penn State in the regular-season finale. Plus, some early Big Ten tournament thoughts on the blog. Did the win push the Gophers on the right side of the bubble? Not quite yet.
2. Gophers coach Richard Pitino put Oto Osenieks in for just a few seconds at the end of Minnesota's win on Sunday night despite the fact that the forward's playing career is technically over because of knee injuries. It was a nice gesture for a player that has been with the team for four years, including his redshirt season.
"The reason why we announced that he was seeking a medical [waiver] was I wanted to honor him tonight," Pitino said. "If we didn't have that opportunity I would have waited and just worked on it in the offseason. But I just ... wanted him to at least have his opportunity to get a jersey, speak to the crowd ... and I didn't want to show up Penn State in any way but I wanted to get him on the court somehow."
3. The Big Ten bracket has officially been set with the final game of the night -- a Nebraska home win over Wisconsin -- giving the Huskers the final top seed (check out Tim Miles' postgame message to his team here). Michigan (1), Wisconsin (2) and Michigan State (3) round out the top four that will receive opening-round byes. The Gophers (7) will face Penn State (10) again at 5:30 CT on Thursday. The winner will play Wisconsin on Friday.
4. Last night, a major theme in the locker room and at the podium was the notion that it's hard to beat a team three times. Just how hard is it? Nadine Babu of Gopherhole took a look, finding that from 1998-2013, the team that went 2-0 in the regular season won a third matchup 67.3 percent of the time. What do you think? Is this number higher or lower than you expected?
"Richard Pitino's Gophers got a big W today. Minnesota finished season 8-10 in the B1G with great computer numbers. Need a win in league tourney." -- @jeffgreeer_cj
"#Huskers finish #B1G campaign 11-7. That's absolutely unthinkable. Tim Miles, you will never buy another meal in Lincoln." -- @BTNBrentYarina
"Wouldn't it be wild if all these Big Ten teams gathered in the same city and played a single elimination tournament? One can dream." -- @MedcalfByESPN
"Never thought I'd say this but Nebraska is drunk on basketball." -- @HuskersExtraBR
"Nebraska's win means more pressure for the remaining bubble teams. One less NCAA slot for everyone else on the brink of the field." -- @JonRothstein
Random ranking: Best Gopher wins this season
1. Penn State at home: What, you ask? Beating up this lowly squad? But after all the rest of the season was played out, the Gophers needed this one the most. And against a struggling squad, and after a week layoff, Minnesota took care of business.
2. Iowa at home: That win doesn't look nearly as impressive anymore with the Hawkeyes struggling but looking back, the victory seems to have started the turning of a corner. Including that game, the Gophers have shot at least 52.2 percent from the field in five of their six ensuing halves.
3. Wisconsin at home: Nothing gears up a fanbase like a strong win over a rival. Unfortunately for the Gophers, they followed up the raucous performance -- set in the best atmosphere I've seen in the Barn since coming here -- with another letdown. At the same time, Minnesota's dominance in the paint vs. the Badgers should lend itself to confidence should the Gophers face Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament second round.
4. Northwestern on the road: Minnesota's road record is still not a strength -- the Gophers went just 2-7 away from home in the Big Ten this season -- but notching one in Wildcats territory was absolutely necessary, both to avoid another "bad" loss and to have a more recent road experience to draw on when the Gophers head to Indy's neutral court. It wasn't pretty, but in the Big Ten a road win is a win is a win.
5. Ohio State at home: It was the start of the Gophers' ranked victories and the first glimpse that the team could be capable -- at least at times -- of playing with good squads. Elliott Eliason had a big game, the Gophers were rolling offensively and on the other end, they held the Buckeyes to just 35.3 percent shooting.
Read my full game story on the Gophers' 81-63 win over Penn State here. (Updated version will appear as it is edited.)
According to Minnesota coach Richard Pitino, beating a team three times in a row is one of the hardest things to do in sports.
The Gophers are fortunate enough to have that challenge in front of them.
After roundly beating Penn State at Williams Arena on Sunday, Minnesota heads into the Big Ten tournament as the 7-seed, set to face the Nittany Lions again in the opening round. Had they lost, the Gophers would have been the 8-seed, facing Indiana.
"I definitely think we can beat them three straight times," Mo Walker said. "I think we're a lot more talented than they are, I think we've got a lot more depth than they do."
In this league, no team is a pushover, something Minnesota found when it traveled to State College back in January, narrowly pulling out a win over the Nittany Lions in a game in which DJ Newbill went scoreless.
Still, the Gophers seem to have improved in the last three games.
It's probably the smoothest possible path for the Gophers, who would face Wisconsin in the second round. The Badgers were looking capable of snagging a 1-seed before losing at Nebraska a few hours after Minnesota wrapped up its season finale, but the Gophers proved capable of exploiting some matchup advantages in January, beating Wisconsin by 13 points at the Barn.
One victory in the league tournament gives the Gophers a chance to slide into the NCAA tournament, but the Huskers victory -- all but assuring a spot in the field -- makes that position significantly more tenuous.
"I don't really follow anything about any of the tournaments -- I just know if you win you get in," DeAndre Mathieu said. "So I just go out there and try to win, I don't know about none of the seeding, none of that stuff."
Even so, the Gophers are buoyed by the idea that the Big Ten has been so unpredictable all season. Despite the presence of four ranked teams, it's hard to argue that there is a true favorite.
"We know it's going to be a tough tournament but it's anybody's tournament because our league is so so tough," Mathieu said.
At first, Richard Pitino didn't think it was a big deal.
So when he saw Oto Osenieks nearly in tears after the Iowa game, he was a little taken aback.
His forward had been complaining about pain in his left knee for weeks, but the coach thought it was something that could go away with rest.
Ultimately, Osenieks and the doctors decided it wouldn't -- and continuing to play on it wasn't worth the risk of worsening his joint for the future.
Years ago, Osenieks had two surgeries on the knee back in Latvia, from where he hails. Over time, the cartilage has worn away, creating a constant grinding with movement.
"He's just been hobbling," Pitino said. "It's just that bone-on-bone, it's never really going to heal."
Finally, Osenieks, who turns 24 in 10 days, came to the coach and told him he wasn't sure if he could do it any longer. Pitino said it was an emotional process for the player.
"All kidding aside, you go out for a run when you get older and it's harder to do," Pitino said. "And I think he feels that a little bit. He wants to help the team as much as possible. But really, it was his decision, it wasn't our doing at all. He was the one who kind of came to us."
Next year, Osenieks -- who is on track to graduate this semester but who had one year of eligibility remainint -- will stay on with the team as a grad assistant. Osenieks has been interested in coaching, something Pitino jokes could change after one year with him.
Because of the timing of the announcement, Osenieks will be honored at Senior Night today, along with Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi and Malik Smith.
Other notes on the seniors:
*Austin Hollins will tie the record for most games played (134) in Maroon and Gold when he steps on the court today, for Senior Night. Rodney Williams previously held the record.
"I think it just shows you that he's had an impact early on in his career," Pitino said of Hollins, who he called 'a coach's dream.' "When guys do that it means that they've been somewhat of an impact player as a freshman, which is huge. You look at Elliott and Mo, they're playing well this year but they didn't have a lot of experience early. Well, Austin was thrown in there, he's a 1000-point scorer ... He treats this like a job. And he's very, very professional about his work. Every single day he comes to work, and that's tough as a college student."
*Pitino imagines that when folks in Boston turn on the TV and see Malik Smith on the floor for Minnesota, they smile.
"And probably laugh," he said.
A year ago, Smith joined Pitino at Florida International after two stops at junior colleges. At the end of the year, he wasn't even all-conference in the Sun Belt. Now, he's the sixth man on a borderline NCAA tournament team. The shooting specialist is going through perhaps the biggest slump of his career right now -- he's made just one of his last 19 attempts from three-point range -- but Smith has had a huge impact on the Gophers' early successes. He's been a spark off the bench, and found a knack for hitting clutch shots in big moments.
"If you just look at the body of work, to be able to do what he's done, is pretty impressive," Pitino said. "So it just shows he's come a long, long way."
*It's no secret that Maverick Ahanmisi hasn't played much this year. Once the backup point guard, the combo guard quickly found himself behind new floor general DeAndre Mathieu and shooting guard Smith in the depth chart. His minutes have gone from 10.5 a game last year to eight a game this season.
Those facts make the California native's attitude that much more impressive, Pitino has said repeatedly. And in talking to Ahanmisi, the sentiment seems genuine.
"All four years I've been here I've had fun," he said. "So no matter if I'm hurt or if I'm playing or I'm not playing, I've enjoyed all my time here."
It's that positivity and concern for the whole that saddens Pitino a little, even as he's constructed the rotation he's felt he can get the most out of. Pitino said he believes that Ahanmisi has potential as a player, but that Smith's arrival and hot start simply cut down his opportunities.
"I'm disappointed that I've not been able to play him more," the coach said. "Just because he's such a good kid, he's got such a good attitude, he's a great teammate. Mav's problem probably has been Malik. With Malik playing as well as he was early ... we just didn't know, really, where to play him. But I think he's a good player. He's an unbelievable kid, an unbelievable teammate."
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