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 has plenty of motivation vs. Penn State

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball, Gophers coaches, Gophers players Updated: March 13, 2014 - 4:39 PM

Tonight's game tips at 5:30 CT and will be broadcast on ESPN2 and 1500-a.m.

The Gophers (7) have the upper hand when it comes to seeding in tonight's matchup against Penn State (10).

But in terms of exceptional players?

Earlier this week, the Big Ten media and coaches stated that edge goes to the Nittany Lions.

When the All-Big Ten teams and awards were announced on Monday, two Penn State players landed in the mix -- D.J. Newbill was named to the all-conference second team; Tim Frazier was named to the all-conference third team.

The Gophers? The only recognition came in the form of a pair of honorable mentions for Andre Hollins (from the media and the coaches) and DeAndre Mathieu (from the media).

Minnesota coach Richard Pitino plans to make sure his team remembers the discrepancy when they step onto the Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Thursday evening.

"It's not that I feel slight because there's a lot of really good players in this conference," he said. "But will I mention to them that there was no first, second, third, defensive, all-rookie, sixth man of the year? Yeah, I'll mention it to them. 

"The teams that we're playing and the media that talked to us are the ones that chose it. You've got to use everything to our advantage, so I'll do my best to turn them on everybody."

The Gophers should need little motivation. Most agree that Minnesota -- firmly on the bubble for now -- need at the very least a win over the Nittany Lions if it want a chance at a bid in the NCAA tournament (and likely, they need one more victory after that).

Minnesota has already beaten Penn State twice this season, including an 18-point stomping over the Nittany Lions on Sunday, in the Gophers' last game of the regular season. But Penn State's talented backcourt ensures it has the opportunity to upset any team on a good night. Patrick Chambers' squad has won six conference games this season, including a sweep over Ohio State, and a win at Indiana -- something Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan all couldn't do.

On Sunday, Newbill and Frazier combined for 38 points, but the team mustered just 25 from everyone else. 

In that game, the Gophers were able to capitalize on some advantages that normally don't exist. Penn State turned over the ball 16 times, something of a rarity for a team that normally handles the ball well. In the previous five games, the Nittany Lions had averaged just 10.2 turnovers a game. And the Gophers were able to get Mo Walker going in the post despite the Nittany Lions ranking first in the league in two-point defense. The big man finished with 16 points and the Gophers had 26 in the paint in all.

The trick for Minnesota is going to be to forget about all of that and treat tonight like a new game. 

"This feels a lot like a new season for us," Walker said. "It's a new beginning for us. We've got a great chance to go out here and do big things in the Big Ten tournament. We've never won a Big Ten title here at the University of Minnesota so it's just another opportunity for us to make a lot of noise and get a run going leading up to the tournament."

If the Gophers win on Thursday, they will play Wisconsin in the second round on Friday. If not, they will head home and likely begin preparing for the NIT.

But whatever happens, the Gophers are looking at this season as a success already. After being picked by most to finish 9th by the media in the preseason, Minnesota finished in sole possession of 7th with an 8-10 record. Many thought the team didn't have NCAA tournament potential, yet here the Gophers are with an opportunity.

"I think if you'd told me at the beginning of the season we could maybe win a game or two, be in the NCAA tournament with returning 48 percent of our scoring, a lot of brand new guys, a lot of guys who have never played in these type of situations, I'd say where do I sign up," Pitino said.

"Guys like DeAndre have come in and given us unbelievable minutes -- he was a bit of an unknown. When you bring a junior college kid in it usually takes time to adjust, but to his credit he's done that. Joey King was in the Missouri Valley last year and he's proved to be a very good piece to what we're trying to do. Mo hardly played. And to his credit he's become a very good player. Elliott [Eliason] has improved. Malik [Smith] was giving us a lot."

At the same time, while Minnesota may have overachieved from initial predictions, expectations are fluid -- what people anticipated at the start of the year morphs as players improve and the team shows it can play with good competition. 

For better or for worse, when you win a few really strong games, the losses look worse.

"I think we've exceeded a lot of people's expectations, and I think we've probably exceeded our own," Andre Hollins said. "But at the same time I think we need to strive to be better, and we've shown glimpses of that."

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