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
One of the best Minnesota stories of the year is almost being ignored right now.
With the top-seeded Gophers steadily advancing in the NIT -- they head to New York to play Florida State in the semifinals at 8 p.m. CT on Tuesday -- there has been plenty of talk about the seniors. There has been speculation about Andre Hollins, who has struggled. There has been commentary on coach Richard Pitino's handling of Year One.
Tuesday night, with Austin Hollins exploding for a new career-high 32 points, Mo Walker quietly put up one of the most ridiculous stat lines imaginable, as much as one can quietly do something like that.
Twelve points. Nine rebounds. Four assists. Three blocks. Three steals. Zero turnovers.
And the only reason the performance didn't warrant more turned heads is that most are no longer surprised to see Walker go off.
But think about that for a moment.
At the beginning of the season, there were questions about whether Walker would transfer because no one knew whether he could play in Pitino's system. For that matter, we didn't really know how he played at all. Over the previous few seasons, his soft touch around the basket and formidable size were obvious, but beyond that, there was a stack of unknowns. Even after the Ontario native shed 60 pounds, over the summer it seemed as though it would take him time to learn to play in his new body and to shake the rust.
My, how quickly he's developed.
Walker missed the first six games of the season for a violation of university policies, and then averaged 4.9 points and 3.2 rebounds through the first 13 games. Through the last 17, he's lifted those averages to 8.4 points and 5.2 rebounds a game. If you look only at the last six, those numbers jump to ten points and six rebounds a game.
That's exactly the type of steady and notable improvement a coach dreams about, especially from a wildcard player like Walker was at the season's start.
And perhaps the most encouraging news for Gophers fans is that he'll be around for another season. If this season was any hint of things to come, Walker has the ability to take great leaps again next year. Given what he's shown in the last few weeks, it seems he's only starting to touch his potential.
Five tidbits as a contemplate a plan of attack for New York.
1. If you missed it last night, 1-seed Florida State narrowly beat 3-seed Louisiana Tech in the NIT quarterfinals and now will play the Gophers in the semifinals New York on Tuesday at 8 p.m. CT (of course). Minnesota beat the Seminoles 71-61 back in early December but FSU looked uncharacteristically sluggish in that one, at Williams Arena. The Seminoles have the 30th best effective field goal defense in the nation, according to kenpom.com. Last night, they held Louisiana Tech to just a 7-for-25 showing from three-point range.
2. Minnesota is certainly excited about the opportunity to head to New York. My story from the Gophers' 81-73 win over Southern Miss that took them there.
Plus, Sweet Sixteen games start today. Who's the best team standing? Who has upset potential? My thoughts on the remaining field.
3. A fresh look at the NIT bracket. Heading to NY with Minnesota and Florida State will be SMU and Clemson. The Gophers would play one of those two teams in the championship game if they win on Tuesday.
4. Some video, from moments after the Gophers notched Tuesday's win that would send them to Madison Square Garden. Not a lot of dancers on this team but there are several who find themselves to be crooners.
5. Texas big man (2015) Elijah Thomas narrowed his list to ten yesterday, and the Gophers weren't on it. Richard Pitino and his staff had been going after Thomas hard since taking the job last spring. Thomas final ten schools: USC, Florida, Memphis, Texas, Oregon, Illinois, Ohio State, SMU, Oklahoma State and UNLV. If you put any stock into 247sports' Crystal Ball predictions, however, the Gophers chances at landing Seattle wing Djuan Piper -- who will make his decision in early April -- currently sit at 65 percent.
Bonus: The Big Ten released the Academic All-Big Ten awards yesterday. Minnesota was the only league school not recognized for men's basketball.
"Where has the time gone?" -- @AndreHollins
"Got the win last night ... planning on a NYC takeover." -- @BigggMo
"Down to ten! blessed to be in this position!" -- @EliCTMDThomas15
"#protip for Deandre. Don't try to dunk on a 7'3" guy next week." -- @FromTheBarn
"Just up late thinking about how frustrated I get when chipotle workers are stingey with chicken" -- @KingJoey_24
Read my full story on the Gophers' 81-73 win here.
Before Minnesota walked off the Williams Arena court for the last time in 2014, bound for the NIT semifinals in New York, before the Gophers even took the court, DeAndre Mathieu's mother called.
Remember that time in [current Southern Miss coach Donnie] Tyndall's office? she asked. The time when the former Morehead State coach didn't give her son a scholarship.
"Mom, it's not even about him anymore," he told her. "It's about winning this game and going to New York."
Tuesday, it wasn't about Mathieu. The 5-9 battled foul trouble in the first half and finished with just seven points and had five turnovers, while Austin Hollins (career-high 32 points), Joey King (15 points) and Mo Walker (12 points, nine rebounds, four assists, zero turnover, three blocks and three steals -- whoa) took over.
But no matter.
Going to Madison Square Garden was all Mathieu wanted.
Well, that and beating his former coach.
Tyndall was at Morehead State in 2012 when after his freshman season, Mathieu asked for a scholarship. Tyndall declined.
Since then, the pair hadn't spoken, despite that Tyndall said he's proud of his former player.
So when Mathieu heard who the Gophers' quarterfinal matchup would be, he was more than a little stoked.
"I was really excited," he said. "I'm even more excited now that we beat them. Because I would hate to hear what he had to say to the media after they beat us, like we didn't need DeAndre anyway. I'm just joking but yeah, man it feels good to just beat him. To know I played for him and he didn't give me a second chance, and to come out here and beat him, it feels really good."
Asked whether the night caused him to reflect on his long journey, Mathieu shook his head.
"It seems like forever ago," he said. "I don't even think about it anymore."
Back then, Mathieu said, even he didn't know if he would make it to this level, to be the starting point on a Big Ten team.
"The credit goes to DeAndre, the blame doesn't go to Tyndall," Pitino said. "He probably wasn't good enough to play at the time."
Now, Mathieu is just enjoying the fruits of his efforts.
"When I transferred it was just the best feeling," he said. "It just felt really good, and I'm just happy to be in the Big Ten and not still at Morehead, really."
Tonight's game vs. Southern Miss tips at 8 p.m. CT and will be broadcast on ESPN and 1500-a.m.
If there is one and only one thing Minnesota coach Richard Pitino should get credit for this season, it's getting the players he has to play hard.
Now, as the Gophers head into their third-round matchup against 3-seed Southern Miss -- the most talented team they've faced in the NIT so far -- that quality matters more than ever.
A victory tonight would send the top-seeded Gophers to New York, and Madison Square Garden, for the NIT semifinals, where they would face either fellow top-seed Florida State or 3-seed Louisiana Tech.
Does Minnesota want that?
All year, we've seen the results of players kicking up their effort a notch under Pitino: Mo Walker (the most extreme example) and Elliott Eliason have notably improved, while DeAndre Mathieu, the JUCO-turned-Big Ten starting point guard, has somehow transformed into the most valuable player on the team.
Now, we're seeing that elevation in play from others. Senior Maverick Ahanmisi is playing as well as he has in his career. And in the last two games, Joey King has gone from under-the-radar to game-changer as Minnesota tries to hold onto its postseason life.
Sure, it's the NIT. The competition is far less stout than it was in the Big Ten slate. We know that. Still, these big performances are impressive simply from the standpoint of such showings reflecting a player's desire to keep competing.
On Sunday, King, who is averaging seven points and 2.7 rebounds on the year, finished with a team-high 18 points and added a pair of steals. The night gave him three consecutive games scoring in double digits, dating back to the Wisconsin game in the second round of the Big Ten tournament -- something he hadn't before done in maroon and gold.
Part of that is matchups, certainly. Not only do High Point and St. Mary's lack the talent Minnesota has, both squads also didn't switch on pick-and-rolls, leaving King open to shoot a little more. To his credit, he took advantage, connecting on four of six three-pointers in the last two games. Stringing together three big nights, especially when Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins have been hot and cold, has been critical for the Gophers' forward momentum.
"I mean, my teammates are getting me open shots and things are dropping," he said. "So it’s going really well. I just want to have a lot of momentum in this next stretch, going into next season."
The Chipper is back
Tonight marks the return of Chip "Chipper" Armelin to the Barn. Armelin transferred to Southern Miss after his sophomore season at Minnesota, and is back on the court after sitting out last year.
For the most part, he's been the same type of player with the Golden Eagles as he was with the Gophers. His stats are up and down and somewhat unreliable, but he's still capable of having a big night off the bench. The 6-4 guard is averaging 4.7 points and 1.9 rebounds in 13.4 minutes a game -- almost identical to his production for Minnesota in 2011-12.
"He's an energy guy off the bench," Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall said. "Some nights he gets you 12 or 14 and other nights he might only get you 2 or 4, but just a guy that really plays with a lot of energy. We have two really good senior guards that he's kind of caught behind, but he's a hard worker, he's a great kid."
Tyndall said the Louisiana native, hasn't acted overly excited for the homecoming, but then, Armelin was never one to do much talking. Judging by his Twitter account, in which he's retweeted a lot of Minnesota fans welcoming him back, he's greatly looking forward to the opportunity.
"He's the type of guy who's mature enough to just approach it like it's any other game and come in and do his job or play his role," Tyndall said.
Care to step back in time and remember Armelin's tenure in maroon and gold? Here are some highlights.
Tyndall will meet his former walk-on, DeAndre Mathieu, again.
My how things have changed since these two last met. Two years ago, Mathieu was in the office of Tyndall, who was at Morehead State at the time, asking for a scholarship. The coach said no. He had his reasons then. But he certainly could not have predicted Mathieu's steep climb since that day. If you haven't already, read my story on Mathieu and Tyndall's past.
I wanted to share some leftover quotes from Tyndall that didn't get into the story.
*On not offering Mathieu a scholarship: "There have been some people I know that have been critical that I didn't offer him a scholarship, but I was the guy that gave him a recruited walk-on position when nobody else did. So I believed in Dre and I thought he had a chance to be a good player. And he certainly did some good things for us as a freshman."
*On Mathieu quitting the team midway through the year, after his best friend passed: "It was a pretty traumatic deal. Between his family and I we talked him out of quitting and coming back to the team but his role was pretty limited. He was a nice, little solid player. I liked Dre but everything he'd been through on a personal level and not being a significant contributor to our team, we just said hey, if you pave your way for one more year, we'll scholarship you for your last two years."
*On what he originally saw in Mathieu: "Obviously, he's an explosive athlete and when he and his mom came to campus to visit with me, the thing that made me want to give Dre a chance is he said he'd be willing to work as hard as he possibly could, that he loved basketball ... He seemed like a great kid from a great family, and so we gave the opportunity to him."
*On what he sees from Mathieu now: "It looks like he's just gotten stronger, which was so important in his development. He's shooting the ball better and playing with a ton of confidence. Which is great -- you've got to give coach Pitino a lot of credit for giving him that freedom and instilling that confidence. I think obviously the year of junior college probably really, really helped him too."
Five tidbits as I look ahead to the very last home game of the year (for sure this time).
Minnesota - Southern Miss. tips off at 8 p.m. CT at Williams Arena and will be broadcast on ESPN and 1500-a.m. Tickets.
1. Two years ago, DeAndre Mathieu sat down in coach Donnie Tyndall's office and asked for a scholarship. Tyndall said no. He had his reasons. But now, after moving from Morehead State to Southern Miss, he's got to face his former walk-on in tonight's third round of the NIT -- the decider of who will advance to New York, and the semifinals. And Mathieu has gotten so much better than Tyndall ever could have imagined.
2. Last weekend, I was in Milwaukee for the second and third rounds at that site. In case you missed my coverage, here are some of the things I wrote:
Michigan's Jordan Morgan is peaking at the right time: here.
This is not your Wisconsin of old: here.
Playing at home, stoicism takes Oregon's Cook far: here.
John Beilein and Bo Ryan: Two coaches, one goal: here.
Nebraska hoped to keep the surprises going: here.
Michigan one of the nation's best surprises all year, and still surprising: here.
3. Keep up with where the Gophers are: the updated NIT bracket. If Minnesota wins tonight, it will face the winner of FSU (1) -Louisiana Tech (3) at Madison Square Garden in the semifinals.
4. After a wild opening weekend, the Sweet Sixteen is just around the corner. CBS' Jeff Borzello re-ranks the remaining teams here.
"In 1993 Minnesota won the NIT setting the tone for run of 4 years that included 3 NCAA trips (should have been 4) ending in Final Four." -- @RyanJamesMN
"Last home game tomorrow night vs. a very good Southern Miss team. Hope we see everyone there!" -- @MNCoachPitino
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