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
With the 2014-15 season in the rearview and many folks anxious for it to fade from view, the future is already on the horizon.
Unlike some years, what the next season holds is still somewhat up in the air. Despite coming off a campaign that most would consider a disappointment, talk flurries about which outside programs might or might not be interested in coach Richard Pitino. As If reported in today's Star Tribune, Alabama seems to have the greatest interest thus far. But if the 32-year-old coach does decide to stay -- he's given every indication that he wants to -- there will be plenty of work still to do.
The signing period, just around the corner, begins on April 15 (student athletes are able to sign until May 20), and after last season's defections (Zach Lofton was kicked off the team, Daquein McNeil was arrested with some serious charges and Josh Martin decided to transfer), the staff now has three more scholarships it can fill immediately to bolster the 2015 class. Minnesota has already penned Kevin Dorsey, Jarvis Johnson, Dupree McBrayer and Jonathan Nwankwo to National Letters of Intent, so the Gophers ultimately could have a seven-player recruiting class after all is said and done.
At the same time, the intensity kicks up for the following 2016 class, the players of which will be heading into their senior seasons this fall. More on that soon.
Size and athleticism -- first and foremost -- will be driving Minnesota's search for the immediate future for 2015. With promising rising sophomore Nate Mason rooting the backcourt, and incomers Dorsey, McBrayer and Johnson joining will-be senior Carlos Morris, the Gophers' guard corps has good depth, and is hypothetically secured for a while. Meanwhile, with centers Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker expiring their eligibilities after this past season and all other forwards outside of rising senior Joey King (rising sophomores Gaston Diedhiou and Bakary Konate, along with redshirt junior Charles Buggs and freshman Nwankwo) remaining raw and comparatively inexperienced, Minnesota is in need of more options.
The Gophers want more length and size in the backcourt as well -- eventually. For next year, expect them to again be pretty undersized in that area with Dorsey, Johnson and Mason all 6-1 or smaller.
Considering their other needs, the Gophers likely will not sign another true guard with the remaining three scholarships unless they have the option to secure someone very special. And they may not use all three right now at all. If Minnesota uses all its scholarships for this year, it will only have two available for 2016, and one of them is dedicated to 6-6 Rochester wing, Michael Hurt, who committed to Minnesota in January. But there is plenty of bounty there, so the staff might decide to stockpile at least one from this hodgepodge. Look for at least one freshman -- a Malik Ellison decision seems imminent, a source says -- potentially one JUCO and possibly a traditional transfer if potential arises.
Let's take a look at some players the Gophers have offered 2015 scholarships to (2016 breakdown to come shortly).
Malik Ellison: The 6-5 wing remains the most likely prospect to join Minnesota in the coming days. The Pennsylvania native, who has the versatility to play a couple different spots, is a bit off the high-major radar in part due to a broken tibia last AAU season. Although he needs to pack on more weight, the Gophers seem to like his rehabilitation -- he took an official visit at Minnesota in January.
Tyler Kohl: The Gophers have been on this 6-5 wing for a long time, and their interest could outlast that of Drexel, La Salle, Rhode Island and St. Joseph's -- among the other schools who are pursuing him. Kohl has a strong, physical presence with a good shot.
Craig Randall: The slim southpaw doesn't have great size, but he's got enough impressive range to keep Minnesota interested. The Phoenix native is being recruited by a bunch of small schools, including St. Joe's, Louisville Tech, La Salle and Robert Morris.
Tyson Jolly: Putting aside a history of health issues, the 6-4, 200-pound wing has used his impressive athleticism, high motor and body control in getting around defenders to attract offers from the likes of Cal, SMU, Tulsa and UTEP as well as the interest of Minnesota.
Jamall Gregory: Sporting good length to go along with the kind of athleticism and defensive presence Minnesota is seeking, the 6-4 wing has elicited offers from Rutgers and UNLV as well, among others.
Chris Boucher: The 6-10 Quebec native has the frontcourt size that Minnesota so desperately needs more of, and after averaging 22.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.7 blocks at Northwest College this past season, he looks ready.
Cullen Russo: Another big body, the 6-9 Minnesota native has averaged 11.9 points and 6.8 rebounds at New Mexico Junior College this season and has started to draw high-major interest.
Mychal Mulder: Minnesota recently jumped in hard on the 6-4 shooting guard who can shoot and rack up points in transition. But Creighton, Georgia State, Wichita State and Missouri have also all expressed interest in the Vincennes College prospect.
(Hat tip to my pal Jeff Greer at the Courier-Journal for the elder Pitino's quotes.)
It’s a dad’s job to be supportive, and so from that perspective, Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s comments to the media about son and Minnesota coach Richard this weekend in Seattle certainly make sense.
But does the Hall-of-Famer have a point, too? That depends on your perspective.
Here’s the lengthy quote from the elder Pitino:
“I gave him a lecture, which he doesn't always agree with me, I said, Richard, I don't know why you haven't had for two years an all-conference player – first, second or third team -- in the Big Ten. So I'm not sure why you're putting so much pressure on yourself thinking you should be in the tournament. I said, we had two all ACC second team players this year. You don't have one on the third team. So why aren't you like the rest of us in this world that have to build the right way by recruiting guys who can make all Big Ten.
“So, if you went to Minnesota, thinking this is a quick turn-around, the school probably has only been in nine NCAA tournaments if they got released of a few, in the history of the school (it’s actually 12 total and eight that were not vacated by the NCAA)… You're only as good as your players and if you don't have a first second or third team All-Big Ten, you're probably not going to compete. Same thing in the Big East, same thing in the SEC. There are some teams that can surprise you and have teams get great runs, win close games.”
It’s true, the Gophers haven’t gotten a single All-Big Ten nod outside of a handful of honorable mentions in either of the last two years – not an all-defensive team player, not a sixth man, not an all-freshman team player, nothing -- the only team in the conference that has gone 0-for-2.
Thus, the most superficial reaction is just like pop’s: How could Minnesota be expected to win without better talent?
The flip side, though, wonders whether it’s a matter of a lack of talent or a lack of developing talent.
Pitino had a tall task ahead of him, no doubt, when he took over a Tubby Smith roster that gaped with holes. His frontcourt was not much more than a big questionmark then, and he has only had two years to develop players across the board that – with the exception of Andre Hollins – hadn’t shown much, or even played much before his arrival.
Perhaps the Gophers’ coach set himself up by getting players to over-perform last season. But heading into this past fall, the expectation was that several players could elevate to that level.
No. 1 on that list was center Mo Walker, whom Pitino wasn’t shy about touting. Hollins was another that seemed capable of such an honor, and who knows – maybe even senior point guard DeAndre Mathieu after an unexpected and impressive first season in Minnesota.
During a strong non-conference season, there was talk about Walker ending Minnesota’s drought of NBA draft picks and making himself into one of the conference’s best big men. But although Walker had a good year, he stopped far short of those ideals.
Hollins, meanwhile, exercised the long ball we got to know so well over his four years, but was extremely inconsistent over his senior season. Mathieu, trying to switch gears and become more of a passing point guard, only showed shadows of his former self.
There wasn’t much anticipation during the all-conference team selection show – none of the lauded seniors had played well enough to deserve a spot.
Whether that’s a reflection of the players’ effort/ commitment/ attitude or a result of coaching shortcomings is the lasting argument, though not a unique one for the situation.
It’s impossible to know right now. Ultimately, the impetus of this year’s failures will be judged by the future. Can Pitino develop players over the years? We’ll soon find out.
Papa Pitino, at least, was encouraged by the on-the-verge nature of this team, even without stars.
“When I was at Providence -- I'll never forget this as long as I live, I lost six, six games within two seconds,” he said. “My first year. And I said to the guys back then, because I was a day dreamer, ‘You just wait until next year, we're going to win all these close games.’
“And the following year we won seven with one second to go on the clock. So, it does turn.”
Minnesota was not included in the NIT field when it was announced on ESPNU on Sunday night.
The Gophers, who lost six of their final eight games, including a second-round matchup vs. Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament, never found the momentum most expected after they won the NIT last season.
Coach Richard Pitino said on Thursday that he is "99 percent sure" that he would decline any invitations to lesser tournaments such as the CBI or the CIT -- so the Gophers' season most likely effectively ends.
Minnesota last missed both the NCAA and NIT in 2010-11.
More than any Minnesota season I've covered, this one is left with such doubt about whether any more games will be played. My first year on this beat, 2011-12, the Gophers finished the season with the same 6-12 conference record, and won a similarly unimpressive matchup vs. Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament before narrowly losing to Michigan in the second round. But a January win at No. 7 Indiana and a decent RPI (ranked 53) had the Gophers appearing bound for the NIT. The next year, after ranked wins over Memphis, Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana, the Gophers were on the bubble of the NCAA tournament -- and got in. Last year, they were there again, but fell just short and landed in the NIT. This year, Minnesota's chances for any postseason are firmly in doubt.
Will they make the NIT? Won't they? Have we seen the 2014-15 Gophers for the last time? Will Minnesota get the once-in-a-lifetime chance to defend its NIT championship? These are the questions anguished Minneapolites are roaming the streets shouting today.
(OK probably not, but we'll take a look at it anyway):
Argument for Minnesota to get in: Although the Big Ten isn't the Big Ten of last year, it's still no slob. The conference is ranked fourth nationally in RPI and will probably tie the Big 12 for most NCAA tournament bids with seven. The Gophers had a couple of nice road wins at Iowa and Michigan State, far more impressive than the wins away from home Minnesota had last year. And the eye test says that the Gophers aren't far off. Eight of 12 losses in the conference season were by only one or two possessions. Another six-point loss came vs. Ohio State on Thursday. Minnesota rarely got blown out and was often in position to win with less than a minute left.
Argument for Minnesota to be left out: After playing a bunch of inferior teams ranked 250th or lower in Division I according to kenpom.com, the Gophers RPI and strength of schedule doesn't come close to last year's high marks. After the loss to Ohio State, Minnesota sits 89th nationally with a SOS at 65 (last year the Gophers were 50th and ninth respectively). And in the end, the only thing that matters is results. Minnesota has no ranked wins and landed as an 11th seed in the conference. The NIT hasn't taken a 6-12 team since Minnesota in 2011-12, but we've already noted how different those two situations are. If the NIT selection committee really no longer takes into consideration past performance, ticket sales and marketability, the Gophers should be out..
Read my full game story on 11-seed Minnesota's 79-73 loss to 6-seed Ohio State in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament here.
Three quick observations at the end of another season:
More games to play? Who knows. I had a lot of back and forth with the media that has watched this team all year about whether Minnesota has actually done enough for an NIT bid. The numbers -- RPI of 89; SOS of 65; no ranked wins -- aren't pretty, but the Gophers have done well in the NIT in the past and have put up good viewership numbers. If the committee values that, Minnesota could get the nod. Coach Richard Pitino caused us all to sigh in relief when he confirmed tonight that he is "99 percent sure" that he would decline an invitation to either the CBI or the CIT.
Something to look forward to. In crippling foul trouble tonight, the Gophers weren't necessarily crippled. Pitino had to scrap together a frontcourt and play Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou together for extended minutes, and still Minnesota hung with Ohio State, at least defensively, in those stretches. Pitino pointed out that the Gophers could have taken a good lead if Mo Walker had been able to play more early, but the fact that they weren't getting crushed with that lineup, in my opinion, is something of a positive. And Nate Mason -- while held scoreless in the second half -- showed more sparks of the aggressive player that could have big impact next year with a summer of improvement. Silver linings here for a future that looks raw but promising.
Farewell seniors. When I took this beat, Andre Hollins was a wide-eyed freshman, looking ahead to a career that would memories of dominance from the perimeter along with nights of offensive silence and put him in the record books for scoring totals. I remember when I first met him at media day of 2011, and that huge toothy grin that he wore then and almost always when we saw him throughout these four years, although less in the last week. Mo Walker seems, now, like a different person that the standoffish spot post player I met when I came. Now, the confidence come through in the way he talks, in the way he screams and fist pumps after big plays, in the way he dresses, ever stylish since losing those 75 pounds. Elliott Eliason didn't finish how we thought. Tonight, he was the only senior not to be brought to the podium and in the locker room, he got out of his chair to allow the media to surround Walker. But although many of his final days came on the bench, Eliason's passion always shown through. He was always one of the most honest and certainly the most self-criticizing players on every team. DeAndre Mathieu, I never will forget, even though I only watched him for two years. These last two games, he's gotten back to the aggressive, attacking-the-basket player we came to know when he joined Minnesota last year. That player never failed to intrigue. But the person underneath -- the loving father, the burdened best friend of the late Tookie, the unapologetically giddy, blunt, raw personality that made us laugh and nearly made us cry was what I'll really remember.
I wish them all the best in what the future holds.
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