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

Looking ahead to next year: Improvements, things to work on, predictions

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball, Gophers coaches, Gophers players Updated: April 25, 2014 - 12:35 PM

The first season in Minnesota's new era of basketball ended in an NIT championship and optimistic glances ahead. The Gophers lose four players from the current team (Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi and Malik Smith expiring their eligibility and Oto Osenieks retiring), but keep four starters from the postseason run and get a pile of fresh faces in the fall. What's to look forward to? What needs work? Here are a few of my thoughts on the road ahead.

Five things to be excited about:

1. A new banner: No, it's not of the NCAA variety, but it's still the first notable addition to the rafters (that wasn't later removed) since 1993. That's a positive (wrapped in a negative, but it's still a positive).

2. DeAndre Mathieu: The most pleasant surprise of 2013-14 has one more season in Maroon and Gold, and should only improve next season. If the tiny guard has even a similar curve of growth in his senior season, he could be one of the top floor generals in the league.

3. A big recruiting class: After getting a commitment from Illinois State transfer Zach Lofton, the Gophers have six new faces joining Minnesota in the fall. That equals a lot of new personalities and opportunity, even if Lofton has to sit out one season via NCAA rules. It also means after plenty of turnover before last season, this team will look wildly different than the one Tubby Smith last coached just two years earlier.

4. Richard Pitino's offense in Year 2: After a full year to get settled in, things behind the scenes should be smoother for Pitino heading into his second season at Minnesota. He won't be putting in a new system and he'll only have a handful or two new players, rather than a full team. That comfort level should come through on the court, too. Pitino introduced the Big Ten to a free-flowing and occasionally dynamic offense a year ago. Look for him to build on that growth.

5. Josh Martin antics: Let me fill you in, in case you're not aware. This kid has a personality the size of Europe, and he's going to a blast for fans if he gets any notable playing time whatsoever. He's already talked about salivating over the chance to fly all over the boards and "flex for the camera." Yes, that should help pump a little life into the Barn.

Five areas of improvement:

1. Turnovers: No one is calling ball handling a strength for Minnesota at this point, but it's clear the Gophers improve toward the end of the year. A big part of the problem for most of the season was unforced slip ups. But Minnesota turned over the ball on less than 15 percent of its possessions (18.1 percent was the average on the season) in four of the last seven games. Players attributed that, in part, to Pitino upping the "punishment" for turnovers in practice. Near the end of the year, he simply started sending them to strength coach Shaun Brown after he was done with them. Said Mathieu: "I went once. I wasn't going again."

2. Shooting: In 2012-13, Tubby Smith touted his team at the start of the season as the best shooting squad he'd ever had. It certainly seemed as though those Gophers had the pieces, but it never really played out that way. This year's Minnesota team took a step in makings its deep attack a legitimate threat and improving their consistency throughout the year. The Gophers averaged 35.5 percent of their shots from behind the arc after making 33.7 the year before.

3. Center spot: No one saw this coming, right? I mean, at the start of the year it was nice that Mo Walker had lost all that weight, but considering how little he had actually been on the court in the last three years, the arc of improvement he showed in his offensive post moves was really shocking. On the other end, Elliott Eliason played a critical role defensively. With both bigs in their senior season next year, the center spot has gone from questionmark to one of the team's most notable assets.

4. Power forward: The four-spot was far from perfect this season, but despite looking like a black hole at the start of the year, Oto Osenieks and Joey King were both at least serviceable. Both improved and, despite being very undersized had some very positive moments. King finished the year playing as well as he has in his career.

5. Fouling: For the better part of the year, it was one of the more problematic areas of Minnesota's defense (which has plenty of those). There are still adjustments to be made with the new rules still only a year old, but toward the end of the season, Minnesota managed to avoid so many whistles on the defensive end, and stay out of the Big Ten basement in that regard (the Gophers finished tenth in opponents free throw rate).

Five areas that need work:

1. Defense: Good the offense was so capable last season because without all of that scoring, the Gophers' Big Ten record would have been much uglier. Despite a bit of late-season fluctuation and modest improvement after mostly ditching the ineffective 2-3 zone, Minnesota ended the year ranked dead last in the league in defensive efficiency according to kenpom.com. The Gophers' man-to-man still leaves a lot to be desired, and it still remains to be seen whether Minnesota can effectively press Big Ten offenses. The good news is even modest improvement would seem monumental.

2. Leadership: Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins were the expected leaders by way of talent and seniority a year ago, but neither really have the personality for it. Mathieu proved to be one of the guttiest late-game players on the team, but he can also let frustration overcome him if things aren't going his way. Elliott Eliason has become much more vocal, but Walker's second-half surge kept him on the bench a lot more later in the year. Having a guy to pull the team together when its struggling and hunger to take the big shot cannot be understated. The Gophers are still finding that person.

3. Power forward: Last season went better than expected, but there are still plenty of questionmarks. Osenieks forfeited his final year of eligibility because of knee concerns, leaving King as the only power forward on the roster with notable minutes. Charles Buggs should continue to grow but remains very raw. Getting a commitment from Gaston Diehiou, a talented forward currently playing in the Canary Islands of Spain, was huge, but he will likely come to the Gophers more green than a player reared in the U.S. Working out that rotation will be a bit of a project.

4. Small forward: Austin Hollins' departure leaves a huge hole for Minnesota to fill on both ends of the court. Toward the end of the season, the senior was arguably the team's best offensive spark. And all throughout his four years with the Gophers Hollins quietly solidified his role as the defensive juggernaut. Can Carlos "Squirrel" Morris take over effectively? It's the biggest piece missing from the NIT championship team, but it's a notable one.

5. Finding the killer instinct: Minnesota lost five Big Ten games in which they were within four points or fewer at the end of regulation. Had they turned the fate of just a couple of those, the Gophers almost surely would have made the NCAA tournament. Rooted in a conference where the competition isn't going to get any less stiff year to year, Minnesota has got to find a way to win the close ones.

Five predictions:

1. Nate Mason will quickly become an effective sixth man.
2. Mo Walker will start.
3. The Gophers will win nine league games and slip into the NCAA tournament.
4. The power forward spot will be a revolving door.
5. Mathieu will receive All-Big Ten honors.

ADVERTISEMENT

New England 14 FINAL
Kansas City 41
Minnesota 10/2/14 7:25 PM
Green Bay
Buffalo 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Detroit
Chicago 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Cleveland 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Tennessee
St. Louis 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Philadelphia
Atlanta 10/5/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants
Tampa Bay 10/5/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Houston 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Dallas
Baltimore 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Indianapolis
Pittsburgh 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville
Arizona 10/5/14 3:05 PM
Denver
Kansas City 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
NY Jets 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Diego
Cincinnati 10/5/14 7:30 PM
New England
Philadelphia 3 FINAL
NY Rangers 6
Toronto 0 FINAL
Detroit 3
Pittsburgh 1 FINAL
Minnesota 4
Columbus 3 FINAL
Nashville 0
Florida 4 FINAL
Dallas 5
Winnipeg 1 FINAL
Edmonton 3
Arizona 4 FINAL
Vancouver 2
Fla Atlantic 10/2/14 6:00 PM
FIU
UCF 10/2/14 6:00 PM
Houston
Arizona 10/2/14 9:30 PM
(2) Oregon
Louisville 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Syracuse
San Diego St 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Fresno State
Utah State 10/3/14 9:15 PM
(18) BYU
(6) Texas A&M 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(12) Miss State
Ball State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Army
Iowa State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(21) Oklahoma State
Marshall 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Old Dominion
Southern Miss 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Middle Tennessee
(20) Ohio State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Maryland
Purdue 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Illinois
Florida 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Tennessee
SMU 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(22) East Carolina
Virginia Tech 10/4/14 11:30 AM
North Carolina
Eastern Mich 10/4/14 1:00 PM
Akron
North Texas 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Indiana
Massachusetts 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Miami-Ohio
Tulsa 10/4/14 2:00 PM
Colorado State
New Mexico 10/4/14 2:30 PM
TX-San Antonio
(3) Alabama 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(11) Ole Miss
(14) Stanford 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(9) Notre Dame
(17) Wisconsin 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Northwestern
Navy 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Air Force
(7) Baylor 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Texas
(4) Oklahoma 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(25) TCU
Wake Forest 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State
NC State 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Clemson
Buffalo 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Bowling Green
Ohio U 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Central Mich
Oregon State 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Colorado
Vanderbilt 10/4/14 3:00 PM
(13) Georgia
Kansas 10/4/14 3:00 PM
West Virginia
Kent State 10/4/14 4:00 PM
Northern Ill
South Alabama 10/4/14 5:00 PM
Appalachian St
Texas-El Paso 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
(15) LSU 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(5) Auburn
UAB 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Ky
Texas Tech 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(23) Kansas State
Michigan 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Rutgers
Hawaii 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Rice
Toledo 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Mich
ULM 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Arkansas State
Georgia State 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana
Idaho 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Texas State
Memphis 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Cincinnati
Arizona State 10/4/14 6:30 PM
(16) USC
So Carolina 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Kentucky
Pittsburgh 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Virginia
Miami-Florida 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Georgia Tech
(19) Nebraska 10/4/14 7:00 PM
(10) Michigan State
UNLV 10/4/14 7:00 PM
San Jose St
Ga Southern 10/4/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico St
California 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
Utah 10/4/14 9:30 PM
(8) UCLA
Boise State 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Nevada
Winnipeg 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Ottawa
Calgary 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Saskatchewan
Edmonton 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Toronto
Brt Columbia 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Hamilton

ADVERTISEMENT

Advertisement
Golden Gavel by Star Tribune

Time left for great deals

Bid thru Sept. 29

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Is it the right move to replace Ron Gardenhire?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT