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
Looking at the big picture, there is plenty to criticize about the Gophers’ three games at the Maui Invitational. Minnesota went 1-3 with its only win being a Division II team and looked lifeless in stretches.
But peeling back that initial disappointment for the team, there were some bright spots, perhaps the biggest being Malik Smith, who hit a new level of production while on the island.
After averaging just 6.6 points through the Gophers first five games, Smith contributed 15.6 per game in the Aloha State. With 47 points in three days, the senior guard showed why he gets a longer leash than anyone else on the team.
“Malik brings great energy, that senior leadership off the bench,” Andre Hollins said. “He played great in this tournament. He’s great to come in if I was having a bad night, Austin is having a bad night, we always have that extra weapon.”
His output was all that much more important, then, with Hollins looking somewhat “off” for the trio of games (coach Richard Pitino has said, of course, that he’s not worried).
Sure, Smith has the tendency to throw up some bad shots. But he also is capable of a big spark, something he showed in all three games. Smith also looked more involved on both sides of the ball than he has for most of the year, scoring off of drives as well as from the perimeter and getting to the line, while better defending his man.
The FIU transfer’s two first-half three-pointers helped the Gophers make it a game – the second of those pulling them within three –and then when Minnesota started to fall off again in the second, Smith hit a pair of consecutive threes to keep the team close. Against Arkansas, Smith kept the magic alive, with 13 first-half points to put the Gophers up by five at the break before they eventually lost, 87-73.
“He’s a guy you’ve got to put on the floor,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said of his team’s struggles defending Smith in the first half. “What he did, he almost torched us, but we did a much better job in the second half of making him handle it and not necessarily just spotting up.”
Smith did cool off in that second half, scoring just two more points, but again was a big part of the Gophers returning from their first-half slumber against Chaminade. Smith, whose absence was felt in the first as he scored just two points, helped to get Minnesota rolling with 14 points down the stretch.
After taking some time to adjust to a new role off the bench – after being the primary scorer at FIU – it seems Smith has found a comfort zone.
“We just try to compete night-in and night-out like coach says,” Smith said. “Try to work hard every day and just transfer that over to the games.”
The guard has the tendency to hit baskets in bunches – it’s pretty clear that Smith loves to shoot and when he’s feeling it, he’ll really seek out opportunities. The downside of that is that Smith will sometimes continue to aggressively shoot even after it has stopped falling.
That, however, is what you get with Malik Smith. A little bit of mind-numbing frustration; a little bit of game-changing jubilation.
So far, it seems to be working.
Aloha and Happy Thanksgiving from Maui.
I hope everyone is getting their fill today, and finding things to be thankful for. I'm thankful for a good job that occasionally brings me to places like Hawaii, and I'm thankful for readers that help the Star Tribune to keep chugging away!
On this day, five things the Gophers should be thankful for:
1. They didn't lose to Chaminade -- Hey, the trip back from Hawaii could be a lot longer had the Gophers gone 0-for-3 and taken last place behind a Division II team. Instead the team gritted it out in the final minutes, giving them something to feel good about on the trek home.
2. Mo Walker is back -- The frontcourt has a little more girth and one more body. For a team that only had forward on the bench in the first six games, the addition is huge. And Walker started to shake off some of the rust against Chaminade, recording ten points and seven rebounds.
3. They're headed back to friendlier territory -- That is, Williams Arena, where the schedules will be normal (once they all re-adjust) and the routines will be too. No more parrots and boogie boards and 9 a.m. games. Minnesota gets the next seven games in the friendly confines of the Barn.
4. There are bright spots -- So the Gophers went 1-2 and the only game they won was against a DII opponent and even then they made it look hard? The trip wasn't all bad though. Minnesota's matchup against Syracuse -- in what should have been the toughest game of the non-conference schedule -- didn't look one sided. The Gophers battled and did a lot of good things. Malik Smith hit a new groove that we hadn't yet seen in a Gopher uniform. DeAndre Mathieu proved his value yesterday, pulling the Gophers out of a sticky situation. There are plenty of positives to be drawn from the midst of the disappointment.
5. They have tans. Five days in Hawaii? Who is to complain!
Read my game story on the 83-68 win over Chaminade here.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino said he called former Butler and current Celtics coach Brad Stevens before the Maui Invitational to ask for his friend's advice on travel (Butler was in Maui last season).
Stevens' response, according to Pitino:
"Get in as early as possible and get out as quickly as possible and I would probably schedule a Division III team first game back."
Said Pitino: "Well, we don't have that choice. We're playing Florida State."
As the Gophers head back from beautiful Hawaii, fresh off a near upset by a Division II squad, the challenges don't stop. Wednesday provided both a kick-in-the-pants and a jolt of confidence after Minnesota, which played horrendously in long stretches, eventually woke up and executed very well down the stretch to take the victory.
But the Gophers have got to learn from this game if they want to stay competitive in the long season ahead. To be certain, there are unavoidable shortcomings on this team, one of them being the frontcourt size and depth, but the effort -- which was suspect through most of the first and the first half of the second -- is not reliant on great talent. That is the one thing Minnesota has no excuse for lacking.
And it lacked for long stretches on Wednesday. The Gophers looked tired at the outset and generally disinterested until the final 11 minutes or so. That Minnesota finished on a 28-7 run is notable -- and at that point their offense was finally clicking and the defensive press looked sharp -- but if the opponent had not been Chaminade, well, a comeback of that caliber wouldn't have been so easy.
The Gophers head back to Minneapolis tonight, and will rest tomorrow before getting back at it in preparation for the Seminoles on Tuesday.
Asked what the team needs to learn from Wednesday's game, Pitino said "Probably that anybody can beat us on any given night. That just showed us. If mentally-wise we don't bring it every game, we could lose."
Other notes from today's 83-68 win:
Perhaps yesterday's brutal loss to Arkansas was good in some small way -- to help properly set expectations for a team that is still somewhat in transition.
The Gophesr don't have a bruising frontcourt. They don't have depth there, or great athleticism. They don't have a ton of experience.
All of that showed on Tuesday and will represent challenges for the Gophers likely to struggle to overcome all season.The Big Ten will be more lilke the last two days that it will be like anything Minnesota had faced prior this season.
Now, the Gophers should have an opportunity to at least leave the island on a positive note, with a matchup against DII host Chaminade in the battle to not take last place in the Maui Invitational.
But it's not quite that easy.
The probelm with playing Chaminade is two-fold:
*You don't get many points for dominating a DII team, even on the road
*What if they lose? After all, Chaminade has upset teams in this tournament in the past and the Arkansas blowout would look much tamer against a last-day loss today.
Five things to watch as the Gophers play their second consecutive morning game.
1. Mindset -- The Gophers looked exhausted and defeated after the loss to Arkansas. It's important for them to regroup today and not take Chaminade for granted. Coming in with a lack of focus -- as they did yesterday --- and starting slow could spell trouble. The Silverswords have played two ranked teams so far, and are probably welcoming the opportunity to catch Minnesota off-guard.
2. Mo Walker -- How long will it take to brush off the rust? The center wasn't very effective at all yesterday, recording one point, one rebound and not doing much in the way of defense. The frontcourt needs the boost that he can bring.
3. Christophe Varidel and Lee Bailey -- Each are capable of huge games. Each are capable of being corked. Can the Gophers contain both? Varidel exploded for 42 points against Baylor, but had just eight against Chaminade. Bailey was quiet in the first game, scoring seven points, but adding seven rebounds and five assists, but went off for 29 points against Gonzaga.
4. Malik Smith -- The senior guard has looked noticeably better in the last two games, getting more involved offensively and hitting some very clutch shots. The Gophers needed that spark, which dimmed in the second half, to continue yesterday and they need it again today.
5. Turnovers -- Here we go again? For the first five games, it looked as though the Gophers' ballhandling issues had been harnessed, but here they are again. In the last two games, Minnesota has turned the ball over 19 and 16 times, respectively. A lot of those were careless and unforced. It's not a good habit to get into -- can the Gophers start to right the ship again today?
Read my game story from the 87-73 loss to Arkansas here.
What a difference a day can make.
Yesterday, the Gophers looked plenty capable, playing No. 8 Syracuse tightly and battling despite a limited frontcourt.
Today was supposed to be a day of great improvement, with center Mo Walker returning to the lineup, but the Gophers didn't show it, instead producing one of their worst defensive performances of the year, particularly in the second half, when Arkansas shot 60.7 percent from the field, while the Gophers mustered just 31.3 percent of their shots. The Razorbacks abused Minnesota's interior, even with an extra body to pack the paint at all times. Arkansas dunked on the Gophers seven times, a number that felt even greater as the damage was being wrought. For a second consecutive game, Minnesota had serious issues with ballhandling, coughing up 16 turnovers after losing the ball 19 times on Monday.
Perhaps most embarassing was that Arkansas did to the Gophers exactly what they try to do to each other in practices. Coming in, it was clear that both teams like to get up and down, score in transition and press the opponent to exhaustion. But the Hogs simply did it better.
By the end, Minnesota simply looked exhausted and discouraged, their body language telling the story postgame, after the second-round loss in the Maui Invitational.
The Gophers play DII host Chaminade tomorrow in the last place game at 1:30 CT.
"Arkansas beat us at our own game," Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. "They were tougher. They were scappier ... and just our intensity, I thought we just backed down from them."
Other notes from the 87-73 loss.
|Sports (2)||Basketball (8)|
|College basketball (822)||Gophers coaches (124)|
|Gophers players (721)||Tubby Smith (37)|
|Williams Arena (9)||Gophers game day (43)|
|Gophers postgame (6)||NCAA (2)|
|The Big Dance (8)||Gophers awards and honors (1)|
|Gophers post season (4)||Gophers roster moves (5)|
|Minnesota colleges (1)|