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
Read my story on the 75-67 loss to Syracuse here.
In the end, there are plenty of shortcomings to be seen.
The Gophers played sloppy -- very sloppy at times -- and failed to execute down the stretch.
But those breakdowns fade in comparison to all the things Minnesota did right, even if they wound up losing. After all, this was never a game they were expected to make so close.
Despite a banged-up and short-handed frontcourt that found itself dangerously in foul trouble, the Gophers showed a lot of grit inside. Center Elliott Eliason (six points, nine rebounds) provided an incredibly valuable presence in the post, blocking five shots and playing overall very solid interior defense. Joey King (nine points, five rebounds) disregarded a fractured jaw and played with great energy and toughness, once getting fouled hard and falling on his hurt jaw but remaining in the game.
Each player -- whose roles have only grown with the absence of center Mo Walker, who was suspended for the first six games for violating university policy -- was hampered by foul trouble, with the pair both picking up their fourth about midway through the second half. Eliason's value was never more obvious than when the big man was on the bench.
"We tried to drive at the big guy," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "We wanted to get him in foul trouble, and when he was out, we made a ten-point run. He's a big difference-maker when he's not in there. When he came back in, we couldn't get to the basket the couple times we had before."
Walker returns tomorrow, when the Gophers face Arkansas in the loser's bracket at 1 p.m. CT.
"When Mo gets back, that's going to be a big help for us," Pitino said.
A few other notes from today's loss:
Syracuse big man CJ Fair sustained a sizeable cut under his right eye in a scary play on Monday that was never even ruled a foul. The 6-8 senior went up for a slam over a few Gophers defenders and came down with a bloodied cheek after Austin Hollins appeared to catch him with an elbow. After a trainer examined Fair – who was taken to a local hospital to receive stitches after the game – a bandage was applied to the wound and the forward returned to the game, finishing with 16 points and 10 rebounds.“I cut down a lane and I went up for the dunk and I felt like I hit my face. Then as I can down I seen blood on my hand and from there I knew it was something bad.”
The Gophers were within two with two minutes remaining when Austin Hollins blocked Tyler Ennis' shot at the rim. But the big gift was spoiled when Smith threw the pass way ahead of the team, turning the ball over and giving the Orange possession once more. Syracuse went on an 8-2 run from there.
Minnesota showed it has gotten much better from a year ago at attacking a defensive zone. The Gophers executed well against Syracuse's 2-3 zone, using high-low action to help collapse the defense and hitting a high percentage from three-point range, particularly in the second half, when the Gophers were 6-for-11 from behind the arc. "Coach prepared us for it," Andre Hollins said. "We had some lapses where the game got stagnant and I think we handled that well."
If Richmond was the Gophers’ first big test, today against No. 9 Syracuse represents the first MASSIVE test.
In the wise words of Elliott Eliason: “It’s a little more than a test, man, that’s a great team, year-in and year-out. It’s always fun to measure yourself against someone like that. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
So Eliason has already mastered island-speak and the Gophers are keeping it real.
Luckily for the big man, he will have a little more help in the frontcourt than he did on Thursday vs. Wofford. Expect power forward Joey King to play after practicing the last two days. There is still some pain associated with the injury, but as Pitino has pointed out, King is one of the toughest players on the team.
Will we know everything about Minnesota afterward? No, certainly not. But the game will provide a good measuring stick against one of the nation’s best. If it’s a blowout, well, lots of work to be done before January rolls around. If they keep it close or (gasp) win, well, there’s still lots of work to be done before January rolls around. But of course, it would be a major accomplishment.
The Gophers have done a pretty good job of remaining steady through the early non-conference slate (with the minor exception of the Coastal Carolina game), a trait that would serve them well here, where they will be playing three games in three days no matter what.
Some notes on Syracuse:
Aloha kakahiaka, hau’oli Lapule!
I’ve made it to Maui and am already Googling greetings (“Good morning, happy Sunday,” of course).
Mahalo for all of your questions. I hope some of you have made it to the island as well. All of the tournament’s teams have availability today, so I’ll pass along any notes later. For now, let’s get on to the questions.
Seems like the #Gophers really enjoy the triple. Are they too 3-centric early on? Or is it just how the roster's built?
I think generally, when a team is doing well at something and winning, it’s hard to argue that it’s too much of a focus. So far, the Gophers are connecting on 34.1 percent from beyond the arc – which is good, because certainly Minnesota plans for perimeter shooting to be a big part of their game plan.
The other half of this is that with the frontcourt built the way it is – not a lot of depth or bulk there – the Gophers are going to HAVE to shoot more than they would, say, if they still had a Trevor Mbakwe-type rooting the post to throw the ball into. Is that ideal? No, and it makes them susceptible to a bad shooting night. But right now, it’s who they have to be, and they’re doing it well.
Have [the Gophers] shown us anything to get excited about? It's early but is progress being seen with the players and new system?
Sure, I think so. The win at Richmond should excite Gophers fans, because it was a tough environment for a team that is still coming together. The win against Wofford on Thursday should make Gophers feel good because that contest was the very definition of a trap game, and Minnesota didn’t fall in – it came to play. And generally, while I still maintain that this year’s Gophers team has its limits, I think what coach Richard Pitino has done already is impressive. He has taken the roster that he inherited/quickly put together and gotten the most out of it. The Gophers are functioning as a cohesive group, rather than the collection of parts they looked like at times last year. They’ve transformed their bodies and their attitudes, and you’re seeing the on-court confidence lead to on-court results. Several players, like Oto Osenieks and Elliott Eliason have improved dramatically. If you’re a Gophers fan and you’re not happy with where this team is at right now, you’re not paying attention.
Has it been determined if MN will be a participant in any of the holiday tourneys next year?
Nothing is set yet … but there are rumblings about the Paradise Jam (St. Thomas) …
Seems like the crowds have been leaner at the barn so far. Heard anything from students while you're around campus on why?
It’s always kind of sparce this time of year. Attendance so far is actually up a little bit from a year ago, when the Gophers drew 42,648 through four games. This year, they’ve hit 43,895 so far.
If no king for Syracuse any chance Pitino lets Mo free a game early, or are we just screwed in the frontcourt?
First of all, it’s not up to him. It’s university policy, not team policy. And even if it were, there’s no chance he would do that.
Still early, but after a handful of games are there any changes to your predictions for the final #big10 rankings? #aMAILiaBAG
I haven’t watched enough non-Gophers in the conference to make the call about any other teams. But I still think 9th or maybe 8th is pretty reasonable for Minnesota. Pitino has gotten the team to really buy in and respond to their shortcomings, but there are still shortcomings. Come January, the size of the frontcourt is going to be a concern.
Don't you think brakes need to be pumped on Oto? At least until we see what he has during B1G play?
We’re not in the heart of the Big Ten schedule yet, if that’s what you mean. But I’m not sure what you mean by “pump the brakes.” Curb your enthusiasm? Sure – if you’re concerned about getting overly excited and then overly disappointed when Osenieks fails to produce the same results in conference play. But that goes for everyone, right? Osenieks isn’t suddenly competing for the Naismith, but it is pretty obvious that he’s improved. Just look at his shooting percentage from three-point range last year. Just look at his confidence on the court. Watch how much more involved in both the offense and the defense than he was a year ago, and how aggressive he is in doing the little things. Osenieks will take his lumps in the Big Ten, but we might as well give the forward his due – he’s earned it.
How would you evaluate Buggs and Wally's play [on Thursday]? Moving forward, do you see them making any significant contributions?
I thought Ellenson played pretty well – he finished with seven points, two rebounds, an assist and a steal, and helping to keep the Gophers rolling near the end of the game. Wofford wasn’t the strongest opponent, mind you, but if Ellenson keeps doing that, he’ll get a bigger role in the rotation. Buggs had a pair of blocks, which was good, but he needs to be stronger in the paint. Both of those guys need to get better defensively.
If the Gophers win the National Championship, who play Pitino in the movie? My money is Gene Wilder
Oh boy. I’m not sure I should even answer this one.
I'm wondering about this new defense. I like the energy, and the potential for each basket to turn into a scoring run, after all basketball is a game of scoring runs. But so far we have seen that it has tended to end scoring runs, and lead to quick 3-point buckets for the opposing teams. I know it may take time to develop and have guys work together for traps and steals, but can this really work going forward? Especially up against well coached teams like Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Time will tell. This is a new defense for the Gophers so it will take some time. The Gophers have certainly been effective with the press at points and have been able to shake teams out of their comfort zone. Certainly, it will need to get tighter, especially heading into the conference slate, where opponents will be faster and craftier, and could pose a hell-like situation for the very undersized frontcourt if the Gophers aren’t able to scramble out of the press quick enough when teams are beating it.
Also, is every Brian/Bryan with a ‘W’ last name ‘B-dub?’ It’s a rule, right?
I have a couple questions for mailbag, 1, Have Richard and Wally made-up (and the nature of their disagreement), and 2, What effect do you think it will have on Henry's recruitment. Thanks.
Yes, Richard and Wally have made up, which is why you see the latter playing. As long as something else doesn’t happen, I don’t think it should affect the Gophers’ recruitment of Henry Ellenson (No. 42 nationally in 2015, according to Rivals.com).
Hang 10. Michigan looks better than last year. Stauskas drove, stuffed. Explosive! 12-pt deficit kapoof! Surprised? #aMAILiabag
I have not managed to surf yet. (Give me time, I just got here!)
Not surprised that the Wolverines look a bit better than last year, at least early on. Once the conference slate rolls around, Michigan might miss guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., but they have a host of other stars, including Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, each with a year of experience behind them. I anticipate both of them taking another big step this season, and keeping the Wolverines among the elite.
Who's our best perimeter defender this season?
Austin Hollins, still, when he’s out there. Andre Hollins is looking a lot better defensively as well.
Do you see the team turning heads and making the big dance? Or are we a year or two away?
I still think that’s a tough challenge given the personnel. No one wants to hear this, I know, but a good run in the NIT would be an accomplishment.
Silly question but is the press ever able to fly with the team?
Some radio journos do, but not the print media. We all have to fend for ourselves, which means less cushy flights, more connections and more accidental overnight layovers in Cincinnati (see: my return trip from Richmond).
It wouldn’t really be possible anyway. Often, the team heads back right after a game, while I still have hours of work to do.
It seems like Pitino's the anti-Tubby [Smith, former Gophers coach] when it comes to praising players and building confidence. Fair assessment?
They’re just different coaches, although players have already commented on how positive Pitino is. The new coach isn’t constantly praising his players – he has been very blunt both on his blog and with the media about different individuals’ struggles and weaknesses – but I think the major difference is the players all know where they stand with Pitino at all times. He tells them what they’re doing wrong, and then commends them when they make steps to fixing it. Smith praised his players too, of course, but it seems like Pitino has been a little more consistent in his feedback.
Who has the best chance at being drafted at this time? #aMAILiaBAG
I don’t think anyone will go in next year’s draft if that’s what you mean. But right now, Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins are the only players close to NBA material, and even they have more work to do.
That’s not to say that others can’t get there, just that they aren’t there yet.
Mail bag : The way EE has been playing us encouraging and Mo will be fine too. What's scary is the 4 spot come BIG PLAY, do you see this as a huge weakness for the Gophers?
It’s an area that will need to be overcome, yeah, as has been the theme all fall. Both of those guys – Osenieks and Joey King – have exceeded my expectations for them early, but they still represent a very small and thin corps at that position. It will be a challenge to battle with the other physical 4s in the league, for sure.
Jarvis Johnson on U's radar? What will it take to get a four- or five star recruit?
Jarvis Johnson is more than on the U’s radar. Pitino offered the 2015 point guard almost immediately after taking the job at Minnesota and the coaching staff loves him. He’d be a great fit for the system and a good option for down the road with Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu using up their eligibility the year before.
#aMAILiaBAG The Gopher bigs have looked great, but isn't Syracuse the first team with front court size, so first real test?
Definitely, especially since the Gophers will still be shorthanded. Mo Walker will still have one game remaining in his six-game suspension and Joey King may or may not play (fractured jaw). The Orange has been very physical inside and will create a big challenge for Elliott Eliason and whoever else is playing defense at the 4-spot. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing the Gophers do a fair amount of zone.
BONUS BIGFOOT QUESTIONS:
Any #bigfoot type of creatures in Hawaii? #elchupacabra_hawaii_style?
I thought long and hard about this the other night, and learned from Wikipedia that before the Polynesians came over, there were only bugs, birds, seals and bats on the islands. Anything else that’s there now was brought over. So unless the Polynesians had a bigfoot stowaway, I don’t think there are any dwelling there. Also, an island would seem a very dangerous spot for bigfoot. As the area is commercialized, there becomes a smaller and smaller amount of space to hide. Yikes!
Stu … I think you’re onto something. Cain has returned and molded himself into television host so he can prove he’s not the real bigfoot. Or … something?
Aloha, Gophers fans. The 30th annual Maui Invitational is just two days away, and with the team arriving yesterday, I am now making my way to the islands as well. As with any tournament this time of year, there will be lots going on -- yes, even for those of you who aren’t fortunate enough to dip your toes in the sand.
So to help you keep it all straight, I’ve created this year’s ultimate guide to all things Maui Invitational. You’re welcome! Now dig in.
*Dates: Monday through Wednesday, Nov. 25-27. Each team will play three games in three days.
*TV: All games will be played on either ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU (what a welcome surprise after the broadcasting debacle that was the Battle 4 Atlantis a year ago, right?!) The Gophers’ opening round vs. Syracuse will be on ESPN at 4:30 CT. All other times are TBD depending on whether they win or lose each round.
*Radio: 1500-a.m. will broadcast every Gophers game.
*The bracket: View the full thing here.
*A glimpse at the Gophers’ path: Minnesota opens with No. 9 Syracuse, the toughest team in the tournament from a rankings perspective. In the second round, the Gophers get either Arkansas or California (if the Gophers win, they get the winner of that matchup; if they lose, they get the loser of that matchup). In the third round, the Gophers would face one of the other four teams: Chaminade, No. 20 Baylor, No. 13 Gonzaga or Dayton.
*How to still buy tickets to the games: Follow these instructions.
*Other things to watch: Fans that aren’t able to come to the islands don’t have to miss out completely. A live-streaming platform will be set up on mauiinvitational.com and will stream the following events:
Check out all the details here.
*How to explode with jealousy: Follow me on instagram: @AmeliaRayno … I will be posting pictures of all the sights and causing you to alternately drool and curse irrationally.
*How to contain your jealousy: Pull up the Expedia page and cough up those hard-earned dollars to head over to the Aloha State yourself. Not possible? Bookmark my handy guide, throw on a Hawaiian shirt, crank up the heat in your apartment and churn out some margaritas a half hour before the Minnesota- Syracuse tipoff. And tell yourself that the team and the beat writers will be inside a gym for most of the trip anyway …
*A little on each of the tournament’s teams:
Coach: Mike Anderson
First-round matchup: California
That the Razorbacks lost their two best scorers from a year ago hasn’t seemed to matter much. Athletic wing Michael Qualls took a much bigger role and has been playing out of his mind in the last two games, while forward transfer Alandise Harris has already proved his worth, averaging 18.3 points and 4.7 rebounds a game. Arkansas likes to press and has turned opponents over at a rate of 26.8 percent, the sixth best in the nation.
Coach: Scott Drew
First-round matchup: Chaminade
The Bears have been a little inconsistent this season, a trend that should benefit from the easiest first-round matchup on paper. Baylor has been strong in the paint with 7-1 center Isaiah Austin rooting the post after returning for his sophomore season rather than going pro. By his side is 6-9 forward Cory Jerfferson, who is grabbing a team-high 9.8 rebounds per game. On the outside, three-point specialist Brady Heslip looks much improved from a year ago, and has nailed 14 of 27 (.519) attempts from beyond the arc so far, helping to make up for the loss of former Big 12 scoring leader Pierre Jackson.
Coach: Mike Montgomery
First-round matchup: Arkansas
With four starters back, the Bears should have better depth, versatility and balance from a year ago. The 6-10 Richard Soloman has been a physical presence and averaging a double-double early, has taken a step up from last season. Like the Gophers, Cal plays smaller lineups, often with Soloman as the only traditional post player. David Kravish has been effective rebounding in a wing role, and freshman Jabari Bird has been solid, leading the team in scoring with 13.5 points and a total of nine 3-pointers.
Coach: Eric Bovaird
First-round matchup: Baylor
The only Div, II team in the Invitational, the Silverswords have also shown the capability to surprise. A year ago, the bunch upset Texas, 86-73 in the first round, before losing to Illinois. As they head into a first-round matchup with Baylor, the Silverswords haven’t played a game since Nov. 9. Christophe Varidel, a 6-3 guard, transferred to Chaminade from Florida Gulf Coast this year and impressed in his debut, scoring 30 points and adding seven rebounds. Three other players average double-digits, led by Kiran Shastri, with 12 points and 3.5 rebounds a game. As a team, the Silverswords have connected on 22 three-pointers through two games.
Coach: Archie Miller
First-round matchup: Gonzaga
The Flyers are coming off a hot stretch after a win at Georgia Tech on Wednesday. The 6-7 senior forward Devin Oliver is the foundation of the frontcourt, averaging 13 points and 7.5 rebounds a game. Even with Kevin Dillard – who was among the all-time Flyers leaders in assists – gone, Dayton has been a good shooting team and has played fast, if a little sloppy at times. Forward Dyshawn Pierre (12 points, 5.3 rebounds a game) has kicked things up a notch, and Ohio State transfer wing Jordan Sibert has been a big help, providing 13.8 points and 3.3 rebounds a game.
Coach: Mark Few
First-round matchup: Dayton
The Bulldogs lost their entire frontcourt from a year ago, when Gonzaga secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but now all of last year’s depth is stepping up. Six-nine senior Sam Dower and 7-1 sophomore Przemek Karnowski have each stepped up to the challenge and been very good. The problem for Gonzaga is that unlike last season, the bench is very short. But all of the current starters have taken leaps with their performances, including guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr, who are the focus of one of the nation’s most efficient offenses and have both been stellar. As a team, the Bulldogs have shot very well from three-point range, connecting on 45 of 93 (48.4 percent).
Coach: Jim Boeheim
First-round matchup: Minnesota
CJ Fair’s decision to forego the NBA draft could not possibly mean more for the Orange, which lost three of its four best players from a year ago. Fair is averaging 18 points and 5.5 rebounds a game and is the core of one of the best frontcourts in the nation, full of length and athleticism. Six-eight sophomore Jerami Grant has taken off, and the Orange has plenty of depth at center with differing options in Rakeem Christmas, Baye Moussa Keita and DaJuan Coleman. Syracuse has been ever-solid defensively, utilizing their signature 2-3 zone, but the Orange hasn’t been completely air-tight, nearly losing to a much-inferior St. Francis team last week.
Coach: Richard Pitino
First-round matchup: Syracuse
After losing forwards Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams, the Gophers, as expected, have been a very guard-oriented team. Andre Hollins seems primed to take the next step and Austin Hollins has impressed with his efforts on the boards, snatching up 7.8 rebounds a game. The super quick JUCO point guard, 5-9 DeAndre Mathieu slid in seamlessly at his position and has collected 5.6 assists per game to go along with a solid scoring effort. But the frontcourt has brought the biggest surprises. Elliott Eliason is averaging 11.2 rebounds a game after just 3.5 last year and 6-9 forward Oto Osenieks has looked like a new player early on. The concern is the depth, where the only other two forwards in the rotation missed time coming into Maui, Mo Walker – who won’t return until the second round – on suspension and Joey King with a fractured jaw.
The frontcourt has long been considered to be the Gophers' liability. At the start of the year, there simply wasn't enough size, there weren't enough bodies and wasn't enough experience in the group.
All of that will still present big challenges to overcome once the Gophers get into the meatier part of the schedule.
But on Thursday, with the Gophers undermanned in the game before the Maui Invitational, which the team left for today, the Minnesota frontcourt seemed able and eager to pick up the slack.
Eliason effectively played the role of rim protector and flirted with a triple-double, recording 11 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocks (a career high). Osenieks had 14 points and five rebounds (12 points and five rebounds in the first half, before getting into foul trouble). Both moved well with and without the ball and had good defensive positioning, despite that Osenieks had never played center before (and only had one day to learn the position in practice).
The rest of the frontcourt was in street clothes. Joey King sat out because of a fractured jaw sustained in Tuesday's game, and Mo Walker served the fifth game of a six-game suspension for violating university policy.
Afterward, coach Richard Pitino gushed a little.
"Oto and Elliott were tremendous," he said. "Elliott, certainly, almost getting a triple-double. He continues to grow, continues to get better. When you’re playing without two guys who play significant minutes, [that's impressive]. And then Oto was very good offensively. I just love the confidence that he’s playing with right now. I keep telling him don’t worry about anything just play aggressively. He’s showing that. To do that without two guys that are going to play major, major minutes and do it with all the type of odd lineups that we played with tonight -- I mean, Oto played the five, and that’s tough to do because he never practices at the five. It’s not like we had three days to prepare. We only had one day to prepare. That shows his basketball IQ."
To be clear, Wofford was not a very good team and didn't pose nearly as big a threat as some of the games Minnesota has already played this season. But getting players to dominate against bad teams isn't always a given -- look through the box scores of the last couple of seasons, when even the Gophers' best players were often up and down through the non-conference schedule.
The Gophers' frontcourt still is lacking girth and experience, areas that will likely be exploited down the road. But what Pitino and the rest of the Minnesota staff should be credited for is the way they've gotten their players to perform early on. The coaches embraced what they had and have absolutely gotten the most out of it so far. To the players' credit, they've bought into the system and the game plan completely, and done the work to improve.
When the players talk about Pitino, it explains some of the impact. Osenieks has expressed how much more comfortable he feels this year after the coaching change, and last night, Eliason explained just how much he enjoys the new system.
"When we first started scrimmaging each other, you kind of got the feeling, ‘Man, this is pretty cool,'" Eliason said. "When I first came in, I wasn’t sure how it was going to be but the more I learned, the more I talked to coach Pitino, the more we played, I thought, wow, this is a great style for me. I’m going to get out in run, especially if I get into shape, lose a little weight. Once you buy into the system you really appreciate it a little more, have a little fun, and I’m having a blast."
Both of those sentiments, from Osenieks and Eliason, are showing on the court. The pair took their jobs seriously and played with great energy and intensity. In the past couple of weeks, the two frontcourt players seem to have grown tremendously and are exuding confidence on the court -- they look like different players from the ones we saw a year ago. Give the players the credit for doing the work, and the coaches the credit for connecting in a very effective way.
Other notes and quotes:
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