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

Gophers pregame: Minnesota needs to regain focus vs. Northwestern

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball, Gophers coaches, Gophers players Updated: February 1, 2014 - 10:37 AM

Today's game vs. Northwestern tips off at 1 p.m. CT and will be broadcasted on BTN and 1500-a.m.

In today's Star Tribune: Fast-paced? The Gophers aren't even close, but with the nation's 15th ranked offense, Pitino doesn't care. And previewing both teams.

This week's national notebook: How to predict the Big Ten? No one really knows. Just take a look at this wacky power poll. Ohio State No. 11? I wouldn't have believed it myself a month ago. Plus, other notes from around college hoops.

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For the third consecutive contest (minus 10+ seconds of the first game), the Gophers will be without Andre Hollins, who will probably not be back until at least the Indiana game.

And highlighted by the loss of one of Minnesota's leaders, what initially looked like a very winnable stretch has suddenly become somewhat concerning.

After an extremely efficient win against Wisconsin at home, it looked like the Gophers had caught a break. They had gotten through the worst of it and the immediate slate of games ahead looked traversable, even without Hollins. First at Nebraska, then Northwestern at home, then Purdue on the road. No games against the conference's elite, and three matchups against teams with some of the least talent in the Big Ten.

But despite a 29-point performance from Malik Smith, his lineup heir, the Gophers stalled at Nebraska and perpetuated the roller-coaster quality of their conference efforts.  The issues beyond the starting lineup were made very clear (Who is the backup point guard? Can Maverick Ahanmisi be productive in bigger minutes?), and questions about Minnesota's defense returned with fervor (Are the Gophers capable of climbing out of the Big Ten basement?). 

Now, Minnesota continues on that stretch today at Williams Arena against Northwestern, a team expected to fall somewhere between No. 11 and No. 12 in the final standings, but has instead has surprised with its scrappiness. The Wildcats, whose offense is even more atrocious than the Gophers' defense (Minnesota should breathe a sigh of relief here) have managed to gut out four Big Ten wins on defense alone -- not pressuring, harassing defense, mind you, just really, really solid man-to-man D in the half court. On Wednesday, Chris Collins' bunch left Madison with maybe a better win than the Gophers have come up with all year (the only good team the Gophers have actually beat on the road is Richmond), and will be playing with all sorts of confidence. 

The game becomes even more important if you read into that lack-of-away-from-home-wins fact that I just pointed out, with Minnesota traveling to Purdue next week.

Can the Gophers beat Northwestern? Yes. Minnesota has no problem with slowing the pace down -- the Gophers have actually played really well in those situations -- and its offense has converted against good defenses this year (although I don't think this will be the game where Austin Hollins breaks out of his slump). Will the Gophers beat Northwestern? That's another story. 

If Northwestern is able to slow the Gophers' attack and Drew Crawford comes up big, the Wildcats have a decent shot at pulling out another upset.

Minnesota needs to get serious minutes from DeAndre Mathieu (who cannot get into foul trouble; who cannot turn the ball over nine times -- as he did at Nebraska -- or close to it). And Ahanmisi and freshman Daquein McNeil have to be productive in relief. Malik Smith needs to have another massive game, especially if Austin Hollins doesn't, and the Gophers need to get back to the game plan of stuffing the ball inside to Elliott Eliason (who the Gophers could use to pick up his play to the level it was three games ago) and Mo Walker.

Losing consecutive games to Nebraska and Northwestern would be a big hit for the Gophers, but my guess is they wake up once more and win by 8.

Other notes on today's game:

*Coach Richard Pitino pointed out yesterday just how durable Crawford has been in Big Ten play, averaging 39.1 minutes a game in the league schedule (Northwestern did play one double OT game, so he has played all but 18 minutes). "That's absurd," Pitino said. "So that's really impressive, just his durability to be able to play that many minutes, and he's an intense player, it's not like he's a low-motor guy ... He looks healthy. He seems like a great leader, he seems like a kid committed to winning. But he's the heart and soul of that team."

*Pitino said he thinks the biggest three issues with the team are 1) fouling too much, 2) transition defense, 3) turnovers. The team has been emphasizing turnovers a lot this week, and the coaches have been calling fouls extremely tight in practice. "Man, you can't even put a hand on somebody they're going to call a foul," Smith said with a chuckle. "It's pretty frustrating, but it's going to prepare us for [today's] game for sure."

*Going forward, Smith will likely see teams focus in on him more, after his 29-point breakout game at Nebraska. But already this season, he's learned a lot about being versatile, a word that wouldn't have worked as a descriptor when he was at FIU. That growth was mandatory with his transfer to Minnesota, Pitino made clear. "When he recruited me to come here, he told me, 'Malik, you're going to have to expand your game. You can't come here and just be a shooter,' Smith said. "So that whole time when I was at home I just tried to work out, do different things and not just focus on jumpshooting, focus on dribbling, attacking the basket, as well as defense and I think it's starting to pay off."

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