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
Al Nolen remembers that first semester just as clearly now, seven years later.
Classes at the University of Minnesota were beginning, and the course loads were piling up as he headed into his freshman year with the Gophers. Nolen wasn't accustomed to studying as much as was necessary simply to pass. As the year, went on, his eyes grew wider. He saw other students around campus who seemed organized and completely under control, which couldn't have been further from how he felt.
"I was definitely overwhelmed," he said. "I kind of stumbled and had to find my way the hard way because I wasn't prepared mentally with the study skills I needed in order to be successful in school."
Now, two years out of his overseas basketball career, Nolen hopes to eliminate some of the struggles he went through as a kid from the inner city. Last year, the former point guard took a job as the Dean of Students at Anthony Middle School in South Minneapolis, not too far from where he grew up.
In his neighborhood, there wasn't a culture of working hard in school, his said. The kids he hung with all wanted to go on to do bigger and better things, but instead of visualizing that ascent through school, they fantasized about becoming sports stars. Nolen hopes to do his part to snap kids' heads out of the clouds before it's too late.
He knows he was lucky. A basketball scholarship at a high-major university afforded him certain opportunities, and a safety net. After struggling to stay eligible at Minnesota, Nolen was forced to sit out the second semester of his junior year with inadequate grades. He left, a year later, a few credits shy of a degree
When he returned from playing overseas, the university paid for him to finish.
Other kids, he knows, won't have so many chances.
"I feel like a lot of inner city kids aren't taught or aware of the skills that are needed," he said. "It's not being pushed in their face -- they're seeing everything else except for that ... I thought that since I've been there and I've done it and kind of went through the gauntlet as you could say, I wanted to help out."
These days, any kid at Anthony who gets in trouble, gets frustrated in class or simply needs a break arrives in Nolen's office. Sometimes he'll hand out detention or call or meet with the parents. Other times, he'll simply talk.
"Being a mentor, that's how I look at it," he said.
The new position -- from point guard to counselor -- feels natural for Nolen, who hung up his high tops at the end of his 2012-13 season overseas.
After his four years with at Minnesota -- he finished with the second most steals (205) in Gophers history despite missing half his junior season and much of his senior year with a broken foot -- Nolen initially signed with the NBA's development league, where he bounced around for half a year.
It was his first taste of professional basketball. At that level, the facilities weren't as nice. The trainers weren't as good. The team rode on busses rather than the private jets Minnesota chartered. Most of all, the team camaraderie he experienced in college was absent.
"In the D-League, it's every man for himself," Nolen said. "It was a difficult experience for me because I'd never been away from home."
Soon, though, he went farther. He played a half a season in Germany -- he called it "total culture shock" -- before signing a contract with a team in the Czech Republic. There, two of his coaches didn't speak any English. He would watch other players to try and figure out the instructions in any given drill. And outside of the facility, few locals spoke any English. He held up lines at the grocery store, trying to figure out how much money he owed, and what that meant. The time difference was so extreme that he rarely got the chance to Skype with his parents or his sisters.
"As tough as it was to travel to Europe and to play basketball there, it's one of the things I will never regret in my life and its something I'm grateful for," he said. "I have a better understanding, more of an appreciation for America."
But, he felt, it was time to move on. He lived out his dream, played professionally, made some money, saw Europe. He was tired.
"It's a job now -- it's about the money," he said of his thinking."I kind of lost the passion for it ... it got to the point where basketball kind of just started to feel like I was forcing it, just forcing it because it was something I'd been doing all my life and it was the thing I was used to."
He decided to pursue a second dream: inspiring the next generation.
He moved back to Minneapolis, finished the six credits necessary for him to get his degree in business and marketing, and eventually was hired by Jackie Hanson, the principal at Anthony. Now, he's started an online basketball training company, Al Nolen Basketball (alnolenbasketball.com) to get his basketball fix. What's next? Getting his masters degree somewhere, he said, in hopes of someday becoming an athletic director.
In the meantime, he's enjoyed keeping up with his alma mater, and new basketball coach Richard Pitino. He's been working out with the team some over the summer and has gotten close with new point guard DeAndre Mathieu.
"I like coach Pitino a lot," he said. "He really wants to see the best for the players, and he brings it out in them. He's hard on them but at the same time, he instills confidence in them ... I just really think he's going to bring new life into the Minnesota program and take us to the next level."
These days, the University of Minnesota basketball coaches are seeing a lot more of Elliott Eliason's bare chest.
The center, one summer after losing more than 20 pounds and dramatically changing his body, walks around the court and weight room and Bierman Athletic Building, now, sans shirt.
Last season, Eliason essentially doubled his production from the previous year, going from 2.2 points and 3.5 rebounds a game to averaging five points and 6.6 rebounds, while playing eight more minutes than he had his sophomore year. Although his offensive output was largely inconsistent -- Eliason scored in double digits seven times but also scored four points or fewer 19 times -- he solidified himself as a highly valuable asset as the last line of defense. The Nebraska native finished with 72 blocks, ranking third in the Big Ten. His block percentage (10.6) landed 28th nationally according to kenpom.com.
Now, he's eliminated pesky injuries caused by being out of shape. He's lifting 185 pounds on the bar, up from 135. He's ripping off sets of chin-ups where before, reeling off just a couple was a struggle.
"I bring it up to him every day -- he's getting tired of it," strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown said. "Showing him what he was doing a year ago, what he's doing today.
"It's kind of eye opening."
Now, the Gophers are hoping Eliason will be able to take the next steps. With a base built last year -- a smaller frame and more strength -- Eliason can knuckle down on rounding out his game.
Assistant Dan McHale sat with the big man in his office earlier this season, going through each of his makes and misses. The patterns were obvious.
One of his goals is to improve his shooting, yes, but in a smart way: Perfecting a turn-around jumper that is already difficult to block because of his high release. Adding an 8-to-10 foot jumper that McHale believes will "surprise some people." And rather than forcing his weaknesses -- he will never be a back-to-the-basket player -- the coaches have Eliason working on securing a deep position in the paint more consistently, so he doesn't have to post up off the block.
"When he gets deep post position, you can't guard him," McHale said. "He's too big, he's too massive of a frame.
"It isn't reinventing the wheel with him. It isn't trying to get more counters or up-and-unders or drop-steps. It's definitely just trying to get post position."
Even so, the Gophers are well aware that Eliason's true worth comes on the other end of the court. He's established himself as an elite defensive rebounder (ranked 39th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage), post defender and rim runner while running the floor as well as any big man in the conference.
When Eliason keys in on those aspects of his game, McHale believes the offense will come. The assistant thinks the center could lead the Big Ten in rebounding this season, and transform himself into one of the better big men in the conference. His offense should never be the focus.
"The next thing he knows, he wakes up and he's got 10, 12 points," McHale said.
"He has to understand what makes him valuable ... He's never going to be a physically chiseled beat-you-up type of guy. The way Elliott is effective is he can out-run anyone in the league and he's got a long wingspan."
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino shook up the staff a little on Wednesday, when he hired coaching veteran Nate Pomeday as the new director of basketball operations.
The former DOBO, Josh Adel, will stay on the staff as an assistant to the head coach, a role created for the move. A source said the shift is not a demotion, but simply a "re-shuffling" of duties.
Pomeday most recently served as an assistant at Oregon State for six years. During that time, the Beavers had five nationally ranked recruiting classes and sent Jared Cunningham (24th overall) to the NBA draft, making him the program's first in 14 years. Pomeday, a Northwestern graduate, also previously worked as an assistant at Lake Forest (Ill.) Academy and Calumet College (Ind.) of St. Josephs.
"We are extremely excited about the addition of Nate Pomeday to our staff," Pitino said in a press release. "He has a wealth of knowledge and experience that will help us continue to grow as a basketball program.
As the new director of operations, Pomeday's main duties will involve setting the team's schedule.
Pomeday is the third DOBO Pitino has hired at Minnesota in his short tenure. Initially he hired Mike Balado from Florida International. Balado is currently an assistant at Louisville.
Mo Walker has a different kind of battle this year.
Last offseason, the Minnesota center was one of two players who stayed on campus all summer, eschewing the chance to go home for extra time on the treadmill.
He changed his diet -- avoiding sauces and fried food and eating after 8 p.m. And he changed his lifestyle. He would walk over to the recreation center late at night after workouts and summer classes and tutoring were over. He started taking long walks with his girlfriend. Strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown, meanwhile, banned him from going on any dates that involved food.
"I bring it up twice a week now," Brown said. "Just laughing with him about the stuff he put himself through to get to this point."
Yes, the major hurdles have been crossed. Sixty pounds lighter and infinitely more mobile, Walker became a relevant -- even dominant -- piece of the rotation again for the first time since his freshman season. But due to the constant conditioning of last summer, the Ontario native didn't have much time to work on getting stronger, and tougher in the paint.
Now he does.
The Gophers hope in the next three months Walker will be able to find the consistency he lacked a year ago. The center averaged 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds last year, including 9.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in his final 19 games, but was prone to foul trouble and at times lost his aggressiveness.
"There's no reason he shouldn't be one of the best big men in the league if not a first-team All Big Ten guy next year," assistant Dan McHale said. "But it's up to him. He's too nice of a guy. He's too nice off the court. He needs to show that mean streak, and he knows it."
Walker had the ball knocked out of his hands in pivotal moments on several occasions; other times, he simply didn't seem tough enough to compete against the Big Ten's brawny frontcourts.
In the weight room, he's working on building muscle -- even though he's not putting on a ton of weight, Brown said his strength levels are going up weekly. On the floor, the skilled post man is focusing on his defense, while adding an outside shot.
Whether he or fellow senior center Elliott Eliason will start is still very much up in the air. The two bring very different skill sets to the table. But even if Walker doesn't get the nod right away, his ceiling has grown even higher this season, the team believes.
"He showed flashes last year of a guy that could be one of the more dominant big guys in the league," McHale said. "It's his senior year, and he's got the chance to be really good."
Ever since he was signed, JUCO transfer Carlos Morris has been the favorite to replace former senior Austin Hollins in the Minnesota starting lineup.
But not so fast, assistant coach Dan McHale said.
Yes, Morris has by all accounts been very impressive in the Gophers' summer workouts.
But so has another guard: Daquein McNeil.
The sophomore, who made headlines with his strong defensive play last year, originally asked Richard Pitino to redshirt his first year. The head coach told him no, believing he could help the team right away.
That instinct turned out to be right on point, with McNeil becoming one of the pleasant surprise in the heart of the Big Ten schedule -- during which the Gophers, as a team, struggled.
McNeil averaged 1.6 points and 1.1 rebounds in 9.7 minutes a game but became somewhat of a defensive specialist while playing multiple positions.
"We just threw him out there," McHale said. "We said 'Play the point guard, play the backup [shooting guard], play the [small forward]. He's such a utility guard ... and he didn't care, he knew all the plays from three different spots. For a freshman, that's pretty good."
McNeil's offensive ability was far behind that of his defense -- he might be the best current defender on the team now that Austin Hollins has left -- but the Gophers staff sees that changing. The Baltimore native has gained muscle and lost weight, McHale said, a combination that should help McNeil use his athleticism more effectively. Gophers fans already saw a playmaker capable getting in the lane and finding guys in transition and in the halfcourt. Now, he's dunking in practice; he's absorbing contact when he goes to the rim. He's gotten stronger and sturdier, aspects that many young prospects underrate until their first season in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten, McHale noted. And McNeil has been working steadily on improving his jumpshot. A year ago, the guard connected on 29.4 percent of his attempts from three-point range and 37.5 percent from the field.
"That always was his knock was that he's not a great outside shooter," McHale said. "He's really worked hard on it."
The improvement to this point is great enough to signal that Morris' starting spot is far from locked down. Regardless of what results from the battle of the lineup opening, the Gophers believe this could be a breakout season for McNeil.
"He's worked hard to where it's definitely going to be a challenge [for Morris]," McHale said. "He showed flashes last year ... He's the type of guy that could take the biggest jump."
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