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

More Q&A from new Minnesota recruit Jarvis Johnson's decision day

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: September 15, 2014 - 1:15 PM

I wrote about new Jarvis Johnson's commitment to the Gophers and the shift in recruiting culture at University of Minnesota in Saturday's paper.

But the 6-foot-1 local point guard touched on several topics at his commitment announcement at DeLaSalle on Friday afternoon.

A few other notes from Q&As with Johnson, his coach, Dave Thorton and his mother:


Johnson:
 

Q: As you know, Minnesota has already gotten commitments from two guards that play at the point and shooting guard. Have you thought playing with a bunch of guards and how you'll fit in?
A: I have. This past year, [Minnesota] played three guards. I just want to fit in with those two guards and play my role.

Q: Do you think that role means playing off the ball a little more?
A: It could. In AAU season, I played with Tyus, played more off the ball a little more, so I don't think it will be too much of an issue.

Q: When did you know you wanted to go to Minnesota?
A: I had a dream one night ... when a recruit goes on a visit to a basketball game, you can see the players running out when they say their name. And I just had a dream that [a jersey] said No. 12 and Johnson. And that's when I knew.

Q: You had five visits scheduled, four more after Minnesota (Wisconsin, Baylor, UNLV and Wichita State), but opted to skip the rest and commit. Was that a tough decision?
A: At first it kind of was, but I kind of knew that I didn't want to go. I knew I needed to be home with everybody.

Q: When did you tell coach Ricard Pitino & assistant coach Ben Johnson (who was the main assistant recruiting him)?
A: I told them on Monday, so it's been a while.

Q: What was the week of sitting on your news like?
A: It was kind of nerve-wracking. I already knew I was going to the U but nobody else knew. There were rumors that I already committed, but I didn't want to speak too much on it.

Q: Does it feel like weight off your shoulders now?
A: (Johnson makes a face to show just how much it has)
Yes. The recruiting process was a lot. I enjoyed it but after a while it just becomes a lot and there is so much you have to deal with.

Q: You know new Minnesota transfer Zach Lofton pretty well from AAU. How much of an impact did that make on your decision?
A: It was fun. I knew Zach since I was younger, so we kind of built the relationship to now. I actually didn't know he was coming back to the University, but when I found out, it kind of gave me a little more reason to go there.

Q: Was there any one thing that really persuaded you to commit to Minnesota the most?
A: Knowing that these four here [gestures to mom, dad, brother and sister] can come to any game, to be honest.

Q: You've been on campus a ton because you live so close. Was the official visit very different?
A: A little bit. I've been there so much. But it's different when you finally get an official.

Q: A lot of local guys have spurned the Gophers in recent years. Do you feel like your commitment could start a trend for Minnesota recruits to stay home?
A: I'm sure it does. There aren't many people that have stayed here, from Minnesota. I'm sure they might want to stay [now].

Q: Will you work on those guys though?
A: Ah, yeah, I'll try.

Q: Have you thought about the expectations that come along with playing at your home-town school?
A: A little bit. I try not to pressure myself too much. I just want to enjoy it.

 

Dave Thorton, Johnson's coach at DeLaSalle:

Q: At the start of the summer, Johnson was ranked at 80-something nationally on rivals.com. Now he's not even in the top 150. Are you surprised by that?
A: It's amazing to me that they don't recognize what this kid has done through the season ... I'm not worried about that I'm worried about making sure he gets where he needs to go.
Anyone that saw Jarvis ... playing in our program in the summer -- and guess what it's outside of the recruiting period, it's not at the EYBl -- but they were awesome. The show that Jarvis put on at Minnesota's team camp.
Some of that in my mind is ridiculous ... I laugh at that.

Q:Minnesota has gotten commitments from a bunch of 2015 guards now. How do you see Johnson fitting into that?
A: Obviously Jarvis is a point guard in high school but even as a freshman we had to slide him over and play him at the 2 because we had a great senior point guard in Tyler Moore. The one thing I appreciate about coaching Jarvis is it's all about winning. It's not I need X amount of shots. Everyone around him is like that. That's how we have success ... You look at how college basketball has evolved. In the last two years we've seen teams really playing with two lead guards. Look no further than UConn, Arizona.
I think from a style perspective, it's less an issue because of how coach Pitino wants to play offense.

Q: What do you think Johnson needs to improve in his game?
A: I think he still has upside in a couple of different areas. One is that I think he's got to tighten up some of his footwork from a shooting perspective
...As he develops physically from a strength perspective ... that's something he needs to be even more invested in. We do it here but it's something that the stronger he can be -- and I know what it takes to go to East Lansing and win or go to Columbus, go to Ann Arbor. You can't go in there without your body being at an apex level.
He's not weak obviously, but I'm talking about being a freshman in the Big Ten and being able to handle the sort of physical play that he'll see in that league. I think that's another area he's got to concentrate on ... for him to be an impact guy, he's got to continue to do that.

Q: Has he put on weight this summer?
A: He's stronger. He's done a pretty nice job of that. I get frustrated with the AAU season and the way it's constructed because it is hard to consistently lift.

Q: Was the timing of Johnson's recruitment one of the major differences between him and [DeLaSalle gradutate] Reid Travis, who chose Stanford over Minnesota last year?
A: They [Pitino and the staff] did a great job kind of digging out of a hole to get in the position they were with [Travis]. And I know that was hard for Ben [Johnson, who recruited them both]. But in both situations, they have done the right stuff. Richard has proven that. He is wise beyond his years. The way that he builds relationships and the consistency. Recruiting is sometimes all about hype and that's fake, that's false...Richard understands that. At least in this situation, he's done a marvelous job.

Q: Do you think it was a tough decision for Johnson to turn down all the schools he did?
A: It's a tough decision when you've got Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State, UNLV, Baylor, Maryland, Georgia Tech ... my sense is that Jarvis' relationship was so strong with that coaching staff and liking the players and feeling comfortable that it became a pretty easy decision for him.

Q: Do you think his commitment will help open the pipeline for other local recruits to follow?
A: I sure hope so for the Gophers, and I know how that works. I think we're going to have more players here at DeLaSalle, I have to tell all of you. We've got two more seniors [in Sacar Anim and Josh Collins], we've got other underclassmen that I think are going to be able to play at that level. So at least here, I think that will happen.

Q: Did you feel like the recruiting process was much different than that of former coach Tubby Smith?
A: I think they've taken a different approach than what Smith did and that approach, at least in this situation, was extremely effective. DeLaSalle is a place that is built on relationships. I think it's pretty obvious that it's more than just basketball... I get the sense that relationship-building is something he's really emphasized in terms of how he's spread the word about his program. So I think in that way, it's probably a little different.

Q: Other factors in Johnson's decision?
A: We've all had a season. How are you going to play? We didn't know that ...there's a lot of coach-speak out there. They may talk one way in recruiting and not play that way. Now we know how Pitino is going to play, and how he said he was going to play, he's doing it.


Tanisha Johnson, Jarvis' mother:

Q: The recruiting process can be long and overwhelming, not just on the player but on the parents as well. Do you feel relief today also?
A: I feels like the weight of the world is off my shoulders. I don't think he got confused, I think it was just overwhelming -- toward the end it was. You meet a lot of great people. You meet a lot of great coaches, players. And then you have to cut that off because you can only go to one school at the end of the day. And he felt the University was that for him.

Q: You've been around the university quite a bit as well. What is your impression?
A: Coach Pitino, whatever he's told us is happening. He's a man of his word so I solely trust him with Jarvis.

Q: How big is that for you, to send off Jarvis to a school that you know so well and are comfortable at?
A: It's amazing. That's your kid that you're turning over to somebody for the next four years. So for me to be able to trust him with my son, that's exciting to me.

Q: Are you looking forward to attending games?
A: I'm excited. Me and my husband, we're looking to move downtown. We're so excited. It's just me and him.My daughter goes to Iowa State, my oldest son has already graduated from college so I told him we might as well go downtown and be closer to Jarvis!



 

Local recruit Jarvis Johnson commits to Minnesota

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: September 12, 2014 - 5:20 PM

As expected, 2015 recruit Jarvis Johnson officially announced his commitment to the University of Minnesota on Friday afternoon at DeLaSalle High School. 

After being introduced by coach Dave Thorson, the Brooklyn Park native strode to the podium flanked by his parents and two older siblings -- including sister Tyseanna, who plays at Iowa State -- and made a short speech, pausing to remind the crowd of friends, students and media that he was nervous.

Then, the moment Gophers fans were denied a year ago at this spot, with now-Stanford freshman Reid Travis at the center of the room:

"I gave more thought and time to my college decision, and in the end I realized it was important to come back to where I started the process," Johnson said.

Cheers erupted as he pulled a maroon hat with a gold brim from the white plastic bag he was clutching, and pulled it over his head.

"I'm proud to announce I've accepted a scholarship to the university of Minnesota. I look forward to joining coach Pitino, coach Johnson and all the other coaches at the Minnesota ... I can't wait to work with the coaches and teammates to bring a championship back to the U."

Johnson is one of four 2015 recruits for Minnesota. Guards Kevin Dorsey and Dupree McBrayer, along with center Jonathan Nwankwo have already voiced their commitments.

**check back here and in tomorrow's paper for more coverage on Johnson's decision.

Bierman Field Athletic Building gets basketball upgrades

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: September 11, 2014 - 11:40 AM

Photo tweeted by Richard Pitino

The University of Minnesota recently announced it has accumulated $40 million in committed donations to go towards athletic director Norwood Teague’s pet project: his $190 master facilities plan for Gophers sports.

But no shovel has touched the earth yet, and basketball coach Richard Pitino isn’t going to wait.

In the meantime, he and his staff have organized notable renovations to Bierman Field Athletic Building, which Pitino has promptly transformed into a make-shift practice facility for the team.

“I truly do believe Norwood Teague will raise whatever money he needs to raise and certainly [the $40 million announcement] is an indication of that, but it’s my job to make the best of whatever situation we have,” Pitino said.

“I’m not going to sit back and wait. Every year, every recruiting class that we have is way too important.”

When Pitino arrived in April of 2013, the Gophers were practicing at Wililams Arena, which is also used by the women’s team, wrestling team, gymnastics team, cheerleading team and other high school events. They weight trained at Mariucci Arena. Most of their classes and academic tutoring were held on the other side of campus.

In Bierman, Pitino saw potential to change all of that. After putting up a wall to separate the court from view, the team began regularly practicing there.

And in the last couple of months, the Gophers have decorated their new home.

These days, Bierman’s walls are decked with pictures of each player on the team and murals of the Barnyard and Williams Arena. The entryway has been re-painted in snazzy fashion, with new detailed accents leading into the court area. A new locker room – the old one was built to hold about four people, center Mo Walker said – is in progress.

Photo tweeted by Richard Pitino

“We have 12 to 13 people, so it’s good to have a much bigger space for all of us to fit in,” Walker said.

Last summer, the Gophers revamped the weight room in the building, which is used by numerous programs, adding new machines and effectively moving the team out of Mariucci. Bierman houses the team’s academic counselors and tutors as well.

“They’re really excited about it,” Pitino said of the players. “Austin Hollins was saying as he was leaving [to take a professional contract in France] ‘Boy, I wish we had this.’

Already, the new setup is catching the eyes of the next wave of potential Gophers.

DeLaSalle’s Jarvis Johnson, one of the Gophers’ top targets for 2015, eyed the changes to Bierman on his official visit last weekend.

“I really liked it,” he said, “Knowing that they work fast. From the time I was there for the team camp, there has been a lot of progress made there. I like what they’re trying to do with the building.”

What Pitino likes, more than anything, is the convenience the new arrangement gives the players.

“They can now lift in a state-of-the-art weight room upstairs,” he said. “They can now practice in a beautiful-looking gym. And now they can do a lot of their academic stuff, all in one building. Everyone talks about practice facilities and the arms race and all that, and that’s all well and good but at the end of the day, you want to make all this stuff as accessible as possible for all your players. We’ve gotten to that point, which I’m really excited about."

**The Gophers are also renovating their locker room at Williams Arena, which is outdated and compact. They added a barber chair in the arena building as well. The locker room will be completed by the start of the season.

“We’re redoing really the whole blueprint of the locker room,” Pitino said. “I don’t know if its going to be bigger, it’s just going to be newer. I don’t know that that locker room has been touched for many, many years. Just brand new lockers and just trying to make it look as nice as possible.”

**All photos were tweeted by Pitino.

Jarvis Johnson: Official visit at Minnesota was fun

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: September 10, 2014 - 11:03 AM

With 6-foot-10 center Jonathan Nwankwo committing on Friday night, Minnesota has one scholarship for the 2015 class remaining. 

One of their top targets? Local guard Jarvis Johnson. The 6-foot-1 DeLaSalle senior took an official visit to the university in his backyard this past weekend, along with Nwankwo, who committed the night he arrived.

Johnson, a three-star recruit according to rivals.com who has been on campus unofficially many times previously, has four more official visits set up right now: Wisconsin on Sept. 19, then Wichita State (Oct. 3), UNLV (Oct. 10) and Baylor (Oct. 17). Minnesota coach also visited him at DeLaSalle on Friday morning.

I caught up with him to see how his latest trip to Minnesota went.

I imagine this trip was pretty different from previous visits for you. What did you do over the weekend?
Friday, I ate breakfast with coach Ben Johnson. Later in the day, I got to go to a class with Zach Lofton and got to see how that was. Then, I went to dinner with my family [his mom, dad and brother came along for the trip] and coach Pitino. We went to the football game on Saturday, football was most of the day, and then we went to go eat dinner at coach's house, which was fun. I got to chat with the players a little bit.

Did you feel like you got to know those guys a little bit?
I believe a little bit. I already knew Zach a little bit more than all the other guys. So I guess I did.

What about Nate Mason? Obviously you'd be playing a lot with him in the backcourt if you chose Minnesota.
Me and Nate did connect a little bit. We chatted just today. He was just seeing how things were going. While I was on the visit, him and Zach are roommates so while he was there, we got to chat a little bit about AAU, playing against him (and his CP3 team) last year.

How well did you know Zach before he came here?
His high school team beat my high school team when I was an eighth grader. I kind of knew him before that. We actually were in the same AAU program when we were younger.

Do you consider him good friend?
Yep, he is. My dad grew up with his dad.

Does that influence you at all towards Minnesota?
Not really. Zach just made it more comfortable. He just showed me around a little bit. But I don't think it had too much of an influence.

Did you get a chance to watch them play at all?
I got to see individual workouts, but I didn't get to see them run up and down.

What did you think of the upgrades to Bierman Athletic Building [which has a new court area and locker rooms]?
I really liked it. Knowing that they work fast. From the time I was in there for the team camp, there has been a lot of progress that has been made there. I like what they're trying to do with the building. 

Did you feel like it looked a lot different?
It most definitely did.

How were the fans? Overhear anything at TCF Bank Stadium during the football game?
Yeah, it was crazy. As soon as I walked out of the tunnel, they just started chanting my name. It was cool to see though. I really enjoyed that part a lot. It was kind of a surprise moment, but it kind of just made me laugh a little bit.

Did you talk to any fans directly?
A couple people here and there.

What did they say?
They were just joking around, saying 'We'd love to put a banner up' if I could be committed to the U of M.

Jonathan Nwankwo was there also -- how'd you get along with him? Did the two of you get to talk?
He just told me how interested he was when he got there. It's not what he expected, so it was kind of a surprise for him, that's why I think he committed. He told me he really enjoyed his time there. That's about it. We didn't really communicate about any of the recruitment stuff.

Why do you think it wasn't what he expected?
I think him being from down south, going to school in Florida, he kind of expected Minnesota to be cold and icy and stuff like that. But you could tell he was really enjoying himself.

Did he try to recruit you after he committed?
Ah, not really. He's more of a quiet, laid back type of guy. I'm sure he was hoping I was going to say I was going there as soon as him but he didn't really try.

You've said you plan on committing around November. Is there a chance you could commit sooner?
There's a chance it could be before then, I'm not too sure. It depends on how the next visit goes.

Would you ever commit before finishing your visits?
I believe so. It's however comfortable I get with a school or just talking with family. It all depends.

Did you get to tour the academic facilities at all?
I talked to the academic counselor that's in Bierman, but other than that I didn't really get to see any of the other academic pieces of the school.

Any ideas about what you want to major in?
I haven't really thought about it. That's a long ways from now.

A conversation with Mo Walker

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: September 9, 2014 - 10:34 AM

A year and a half ago, Mo Walker was an overweight and little-used Gophers center with clear potential but not much to show for it.

Now, he's one of four critical seniors heading into the 2014-15 season, and one who stunned the Big Ten by -- along with big man Elliott Eliason -- stepping into the gap left by Trevor Mbakwe and had a highly productive season. He averaged 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds and seemed to become more effective as a post scorer each game. 

To take the next step this season, the NIT Champion Gophers will need Walker to continue the upward trend. 

I caught up with him to reminisce a little about last season and look ahead to this year:

Are you getting anxious for the new season to start?
I'm excited for the next season, just excited to get back to working out with the team again and getting with the new guys and all that stuff.
When I was home, I took some time to spend with my family and see my friends and stuff, but I knew we were going to get right into it so I did some stuff myself so it wouldn't be as much of a grind when I came back.

Did anyone treat you differently back in Scarborough after that year you had last season?
For some of my friends, it was their first time seeing me in a long time since I lost that weight. So lots of comments and compliments about how I look and my body and whatnot. But my friends and family aren't going to treat me differently, win or lose, good game or bad game.

What did they say to you about your new physique?
My family, they were pretty shocked. My mom was really happy. My grandma would always just look at me and smile and always tell me that I look good. My friends ask me questions like what did I do, how did I do it?

Did you go home at all last year?
Only for six days, so I wasn't home for long at all and I didn't really get to spend much time with anybody.

What have you been working on this summer?
I'm a lot more focused on my skill development this summer. Last summer was more about my body, losing weight, getting to that weight that I used to play at. I feel like this summer I'm at the right weight. I just need to work on my skills, getting better on the court. I also need to get stronger. Weight's not really a concern, so I can spend more time on the court instead of on the treadmill or in the weight room.

Do you feel like you've gotten a lot stronger?
Yeah, my weights have definitely increased with my lifts. Coach Brown has done a really good job. Today was pretty much our first lift back and I feel like I'm close to where I should be and I feel good. Last year at this time, I couldn't do a chinup. Now I can do 10 chinups.

Have your weights increased a lot?
Not sure exact numbers. But I remember last year for me to push 225, once, nothing. I can rip off reps of that now. So it feels like a big increase.

What about on the court? What are you focusing on?
Just some go-to post moves. Being more conscious of my hands on the ball. Coach Pitino always complains about me getting the ball slapped out of my hands and stuff like that. So I'm just trying to work on squeezing the ball tight and not losing it.

Does coach Richard Pitino put you through any drills for that?
Definitely, when we do individual workouts and we do post moves, he'll have a manager just trying to strip us or smack the ball away. When we try to finish, we try to finish through contact with pads on and stuff like that. A lot of heavy ball stuff, too, that forces us to squeeze the ball when we pick it up because it's so heavy.

Do you feel like its mostly a mental thing?
I definitely think so. I feel like I'm a pretty strong guy and I think I have pretty good hands. But when it comes to in the moment and making my move, I just forget to squeeze the ball pretty much and it gets smacked out of my hands.

Do you see yourself as having a bigger leadership role this year as well?
I think I might be the oldest one on the team. Losing Austin Hollins, he was pretty much our go-to guy when it came to leadership. I feel like I'm a pretty good influence on the guys and I can be pretty vocal -- more behind the scenes than in the spotlight, but I feel like the guys all have respect for me, we all have respect for each other so I feel like my role as a leader will definitely increase this year.

Last summer, you were in the midst of dropping 60 pounds. How different has this summer felt for you?
It definitely feels different. I feel more comfortable with the new coaching staff. Last year was the first year for us, we didn't know what to expect. This year, I've been through this already and I feel like it couldn't be any tougher than it was for me last year. So this year I feel like I'm ready. I'm excited. I had a pretty good year, I feel like -- a lot of improvement -- and I just want to be more consistent and have a good season.

Has the team talked about collective goals with each other at all?
Briefly. We always have high expectations for ourselves. I know other people don't really talk too much about us. But we like having an underdog mentality and we're going to show that through our play. We expect to be in the top half of the Big Ten this year.

Toughness was a big area Pitino cited trying to improve this season. Do you see any hints that the team might?
We just ran a mile today, our first day back from time off. One of the things coach Brown  told us was if you took that time off and you didn't really work on your mile, it's going to be mental for you. You're going to have to fight through it and you're going to have to get your time. The guys fought through it, we ran the mile and it was pretty good.

To mention another sticking point, Minnesota's defensive efficiency was ranked last in the Big Ten a year ago. How much of a focus has improving that effectiveness been in the offseason?
Defense last year was one of our flaws. I think this year, we're comfortable in the style. The new guys are catching on pretty quickly -- the press is going to be more effective than it was last year, we could possibly lead the league in steals (ranked third in steal percentage last year according to kenpom.com) and let our offense be created through our defense.

You and Elliott Eliason kind of had a platoon thing going at center last year, and obviously you finished really well. Clearly you have different strengths, but do you feel like the competition helps to push you both?
Always. Always getting after each other. The spot is really up in the air. I'm not sure if I'm going to start or I'm not. I feel like I can make an impact whether it's starting the game or coming off the bench. But he's doing really well this summer so far and -- you know, it could be either one of us.

We didn't really know what to expect of you this time last year. You had a great season. Did you surprise yourself in any way?
I guess I did surprise myself. I knew I had the capability to perform well but I've never been in that situation where I had to perform. And I feel like being thrown in that situation and me performing well really surprised myself. I was glad with the way most of the season went. I had a few off games, I was pretty inconsistent I think, but overall, I think it was just me coming out of my shell and getting recognized.

Do you have any personal goals for this season?
I just want to be more consistent. I just want to have a good game every game, not have any off days. And hopefully through my play and through my teammates play, we'll have a great year.

What about statistics-wise?
I'd love to improve my rebounding. If I could average a double-double I'd be in heaven. 

Do you have a favorite personal moment from last year?
I'd have to say Wisconsin wouldn't I? (laughs) I remember a moment -- against Penn State on senior night. I remember getting an and-one in front of our bench and I yelled to the crowd and I looked at my mom and dad in the stands. I was getting excited. That was probably my favorite moment of the year because my parents were there and it was there first time getting to see me play in person when I actually was a contributing factor to the team.

They came to a few games when Tubby was here, and I didn't really play that much under Tubby.
Dad, only game he got to come to. Mom came to a few others. It was just really good to have them both there together, and it was a really special moment for me.

It's your last year now. It's been a long road. Have you started to get sentimental yet?
Definitely anxious, nervous, all those emotions. I don't know what I'm going to be doing this time next year. I've just got to take it one step at a time and prepare for this season because however this season goes will determine what I'm doing next year.

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