Gophers coach Richard Pitino knows the threat of this time of year -- when the Gophers play a single game in a 17-day stretch.
So do his players.
"Games like this can be pretty difficult because there is nothing else to do," center Mo Walker said. "It’s Christmas break, people are interested in seeing their families, going home and whatnot, so there still is a distraction, in a sense, because there is nothing else going on, so people are looking towards the future and what’s about to happen."
Which is why the Minnesota coach was so pleased to see the team have some of their best practices of the season in the last week.
On Sunday, the Gophers broke up the 10-day gameless stretch (which ends tomorrow, when Minnesota faces Nebraska- Omaha at the Barn) with a Maroon vs. Gold scrimmage. Pitino, who brought in referees for the event, was impressed with what he saw.
"We knew we had a long week ahead of us," Pitino said. "And it was really good. The guys competed. Now, certainly, we’ve got a lot to work on -- I just love the competitive nature of the guys during the scrimmage ... the fact that there was no fans in the stands, it wasn’t on TV, it wasn’t online, and they were competing as it was a Big Ten team. That’s good to see."
Then yesterday, Pitino said, the Gophers had the "best practice we've had in a while" after a similarly strong outing the day before. On Wednesday, the team was so into it, that the coach actually had to "dial back" the intensity, he said, which is something he'd like to be forced to do a little more often.
"That’s something we need to get better at as a team, just kind of that ferociousness," he said. "We’re really nice, and we need to get meaner, and that was a good step in the right direction ... They were focused, they were working hard, trying to get better defensively, really competing."
After tomorrow, the Gophers don't play against until Dec. 28, more than a week later. But Elliott Eliason said that while the break is long, he doesn't mind having so much time away from the books, to concentrate on improving his craft.
"Without school, it’s a lot easier," he said. "A lot more time to focus on just playing basketball. Sometimes you get caught up in a trap if you have nothing else to do, but I honestly enjoy it when we don’t have school and we’re able to just play basketball and focus."
- Walker said in the last couple of days, he's been focusing on setting quick, efficient screens in the pick-and-roll offense, and then rolling hard to the basket to seal off his man. It's an area where he sees himself improving. "I’ve been concentrating on that – after I set the screen, just get out of there, roll hard to the basket," he said. "In the past games, we’ve worked on slips – basically just run out there to the screen and slip it real quick and create a driving lane. I don’t really do that too often, but I feel like it’s pretty effective, like that works pretty good for me."
- Pitino said that he hadn't really discussed next year's Louisville matchup that was just scheduled for the first game of the 2014-15 regular season, a game that will take place on a military base in Puerto Rico. "I’m sure they’re very excited about it," he said. Pitino pointed out that for him, it's not so much about him vs. his dad, Rick Pitino, the head coach of the Cardinals, but rather the opportunity to play a team like Louisville in a setting that will earn the program plenty of attention. "I think college basketball, especially recruiting is turning in a direction where you had better be creative scheduling –wise to get your brand out there. I think you’re seeing it a lot. Some teams are almost over-scheduling, to be honest. They really are. But night, in and night out, it seems this year more than ever. You’ve got UCLA and Duke tonight. Florida played Memphis and Kansas. I just think people are getting creative with their scheduling to get that word out there, I think because of TV. So I think it’s good for our program."