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

Posts about Richard Pitino

aMAILiaBAG: How many wins to dance? Can Gophers finish .500 in B1G without major offense from the center spot? B1G's best hair?

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: December 31, 2013 - 1:05 PM

To submit a question for a future aMAILiaBAG, email me at amelia.rayno@startribune.com or tweet me @AmeliaRayno.

Happy New Year's Eve and let's jump in:

Can the Gophers win 20 games without Andre Hollins scoring 15 points a game? If so, how?
@mikelinnemann

That seems like kind of a sadistic question. "Oh, so you say the Gophers are going to struggle huh? Now take away their best player. How are they looking NOW?"

Here's the simple answer: Hollins is currently averaging 16 points a game. He needs to keep that up, and then some, if the Gophers want to win nine games in the Big Ten. 

How many B1G wins will it take for us to make the dance?
@thekula21

I'm going to say nine. The Gophers got in as an 11-seed with eight last year, but they also had the benefit of some really nice ranked wins (against Memphis, Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin and No. 1 Indiana). Exactly half of their wins against conference teams were ranked teams. That's kind of crazy, and unlikely to happen again, especially with the league a little more top-heavy this season. 

This is my daughter's new tote bag.  Your thoughts? #aMAILiaBAG
@RandBallsStu

I think your daughter clearly has her priorities straight. Love it.

In your position covering the Gophers, and therefore, the Big Ten, are you expected/forced to use "B1G"?
@Thunderkoep

I am not expected, nor forced by the #B1G nanny to use that hashtag, but it is shorter and takes up fewer characters when I tweet and I don't harbor the same apparent hatred for it that you do.

Will Wally E ever see more than garbage time?
@secondjsinkel

This question is so popular I might have to start a Wally Question Embargo until something changes ... speaking of changes, I wouldn't expect to see many regarding his minutes in this season's Big Ten slate. If coach Richard Pitino was planning to play Ellenson more, he would have started doing so, you know, when the games weren't quite as desperately important and challenging. You don't introduce a new major part of your rotation just when the stakes increase.

Can the Gophers finish at or above .500 in Big Ten play without getting any appreciable offense from Eliason and Walker?
@KraigKuelbs

No, they need to step it up in that regard. Elliott Eliason has shown capability to do so in spurts, and Mo Walker might be the better offensive presence of the two, but he is more of a liability on defense and on the boards. But getting more production from that center spot is going to be incredibly important to whether the Gophers can make a little run in the Big Ten.

Chances Dre Hollins returns next year?
@MNGopher4Life

Ninety-eight percent. Of course, something crazy could always happen, but I would be very, very surprised if he left early. I think Hollins has NBA potential, but as a four-year player. Also think that degree is pretty important to him.

What’s your favorite song to play on guitar?
@MattNorlander

A question from the great Matt Norlander -- how thrilling! 

It's ever-changing for me (I'm still a guitar newbie), but right now, I'm playing a lot of The National's latest album, experimenting with my new favorite band Haim and kind of randomly, some Johnny Cash.

Does Pitino rank in the top 3 of Big Ten coaches for best hair? Izzo is untouchable & Bo Ryan has the gangsta Philly look. 3rd?
@BryantJohnson1

No way, that honor goes to Tom Crean, with all that volume and movement, and the ability to make his "I'm [really][unhappy] with you" face just a little bit more frightening when the top pieces shake out of control. 

On a scale of 1-10, does Oto [Osenieks] look more like Benedict Cumberbatch than Rich Pitino looks like @Alancumming?
@kshea32

I'm not really sure how to scale this, but while I don't see a ton of resemblance between Pitino and Cumming, the Cumberbatch-Osenieks reference is golden. Seriously. Imagine a younger Cumberbatch with flaxen hair and you've got Oto. Great call.

(Also, I just spent way too much time trying to find a photo in which Cumberbatch and Osenieks are doing the same thing with their heads. It doesn't exist. I tried.)

Any chance we get a change in the offensive coaching staff next year?
@phipho

I don't see there being any staff turnover next year -- the staff is a little young to get head coaching offers elsewhere, and I think that Pitino is very happy with the group. But I wouldn't be surprised Dan McHale starts getting offers soon.

#aMAILiaBAG Seemed like you had a great trip [to Denmark and Sweden over Christmas]. Traveling always = great food. What was your favorite meal?
@N0ELTHOMPSON

I did, thanks! I'd have to say my favorite meal was one my sister and I had on the night before Christmas Eve, in Malmo, Sweden: Lobster with mango and spinach in a creamy broth, reindeer (how scandalous) with mushrooms and Grand Marnier ice cream with currents and chocolate shavings for dessert. Yum ...

My son thinks Bigfoot can see in his 2nd story window, by carrying a ladder with him.  Your thoughts on this dilemma?
@JeffJford

Your son is smart and also creative. He must know that Bigfoot is the only animal in the animal kingdom thought to possess the ability to make and use tools. He also must have heard the stories about Bigfoot peeping in on children. My immediate thought is that it's a fair concern, and you should probably set up a string maze rigged with jingle bells outside of his window so that he can be fairly alerted in such an event.

Merry Christmas from Copenhagen

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: December 25, 2013 - 3:46 PM

God Morgen and God Jul from Copenhagen.

I hope everyone is having a good holiday, whether it's traditional or not.

In spite of the long layoff between games for Minnesota, if you’re a Gophers fan, there is plenty to be merry about as the Gophers head into the Big Ten season (Jan. 2 vs. Michigan at home). Let us count the ways:

1.       DeAndre Mathieu is ridiculously fun to watch. Seriously. Most underrated thing of the season for the Gophers. Who was expecting this out of this 5-9 kid? Not me. But he’s been exactly the thing Gophers coach Pitino needs to make this system works and he’s been thrilling – that fearlessness driving to the basket, that confidence and toughness and finishing power is special, Gophers fans – so enjoy it.

2.       Pitino-Pitino next year. We get to see Father vs. Son on national TV in like the first game that the younger Pitino schedules at Minnesota. Wait, it’s going to be on an aircraft carrier? Hold on, in Puerto Rico? Merry Christmas!

3.       Two 1,000-pointers. That’s a feat, and it’s something to be proud of, if you’re a Gophers fan. The fact that senior Austin Hollins and junior Andre Hollins did it in back-to-back games is even cooler. You’re watching two very talented guards, ones with bright futures. Don’t forget to step back and appreciate the accomplishments.

4.       Malik Smith is as exciting as Pitino said he would be. He warned us. Didn’t he warn us? By now, every Gophers fan has witnessed just why the Minnesota coach was so intent on bringing Smith, who didn’t get any D-I scholarships to speak of out of high school, to the Big Ten. The. Guy. Can. Make. Big. Time. Shots. He’s clutch. He’s a major spark. He has the ability to lift the Gophers just when they need it the most. Minnesota has been needing a player like that, and they got him.

5.       The team is having fun. We are too. This style is fun to play -- that’s obvious in the atmosphere in the locker room and amongst the players. And they say it like it is: They’ve having a blast.  And here’s the thing, the players are likable and the style is probably as fun to watch as I can imagine it is to play. That’s great, both for the fans, and the media.

6.       Minnesota is in a pretty good place. The Gophers head into the last game of the nonconference schedule at 10-2 with wins over Richmond on the road and Florida State at home and no *bad* losses. For a team that has some glaring shortcomings, it could be a lot worse. The reality is, all you want through the non-conference schedule, as a fan, is a few moments to get excited about, and to see tangible improvement. The Gophers have displayed both.

7.       Elliott Eliason has developed into a quietly consistent center. Look at what Eliason has done in the last two games, nearly tallying consecutive double-doubles. The big man, who has slimmed down by 20 pounds, has displayed his always-solid passing ability while taking his blocking skills to a new level. He hasn’t been loud, but he’s been effective.

8.       Highlight reels are back. Goodbye Rodney Williams, yes. But hello, a new side of Austin Hollins. The senior has apparently taken over the graduated athlete’s spot as high-flyer. Hollins has been showing off his athleticism in a way we really haven’t seen from him before. Already he’s landed on Sports Center’s Top Ten twice, and ignited the Barn with his slams.

9.       There is the hope of 3-0 to start the Big Ten. Hey, Michigan is struggling, and then comes Illinois at home and Penn State on the road. All of those teams are beatable. Certainly, it would be a notable stretch, if Minnesota could secure three wins to begin the Big Ten season on a super positive note. But the schedule is conducive. There is plenty of room for hope.

10.   Your local beat writer likes you readers enough to blog on Christmas. Here I am in Europe, on vacation, and I’m blogging about the Gophers. You’re welcome! But now I’m off to get out on the town. Merry Christmas everyone!

aMAILiaBAG: Early brackets have Gophers in the Big Dance; Why the Gophers play zone, Whether the four-guard lineup will stick

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: December 23, 2013 - 11:45 AM

Greetings from Malmo, Sweden. Don’t ever say I never did anything for you guys. After prepping this mailbag on my Saturday/Sunday flight journey, I went to open it on Monday, and my computer decided to promptly eat it. Why? I don’t know. But I yelled about it for 25 minutes and then re-wrote this, in consolidated form. So that long-winded whining session explains why today’s version is a bit shorter than usual. Also could explain why it’s a bit sassier than usual.

Soo, what's up w/ ESPN and CBSSports both thinking Gophs projected to make the tourney?!! Cool, but seriously?! #aMAILiaBAG

@ebart13

To recap, you’re referring to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, who has the Gophers as an 11-seed in his early bracket, and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm, who inserts the Gophers as – can you believe it? – an 8-seed.

But the thing is, these early brackets really don’t mean anything. Palm, at least, does his as if the season ended today, and of course the only things left in the season are all the important parts. For example, neither brackets include Illinois or Purdue – two teams that were routinely picked to finish ahead of the Gophers. But it doesn’t mean that either of those teams are overwhelmingly disappointing, just that they haven’t had any really defining wins (this was before the Illini beat Missouri on Saturday). Minnesota had the Florida State victory, which is one the NCAA selection committee would likely look at favorably. Indiana also isn’t on Palm’s bracket. The Hoosiers have struggled to beat better competition early, but are incredibly young and should only get better and better as the season rolls out. With the way that the young team has already competed, I would be surprised if they end up missing the tournament.

So, it’s nice that Minnesota made the early brackets, but don’t draw too much meaning from that. I don’t think either of them are making a statement that the Gophers look wildly better than anyone expected, but based on the results of the season, Minnesota is probably a little past the bubble. But again, it’s only December!

Why zone? Personnel? Preference? And how long will it last?

@FromTheBarn

The 2-3 is a big part of coach Richard Pitino’s defensive philosophy, and I don’t see it going anywhere anytime soon. He likes the ability to mix things up on opponents, and frankly, none of the defenses the Gophers play right now are strong enough to rely on them in exclusivity. In any case, the zone has had its moments, but it has also been pretty effective at times. Somehow, Minnesota was actually better able to defend the three-pointer in the zone than in man-to-man on Friday.

Do you think we'll see a lot of the smaller lineup in B1G play like we saw today? (Mathieu, Hollins x2, Smith, Eliason/Walker)

@PeteyPT

I think there’s a good chance. At the beginning of the season, Pitino made it clear he wasn’t wild about using four guards at a time and no doubt, he still isn’t. But the team’s personnel is what it is, and there is certainly an argument that a four-guard lineup is the Gophers most efficient option, at least in some matchups. Obviously, this is a guard-oriented squad, and when you’re not getting consistent aggressiveness on the boards from your power forwards (Oto Osenieks is averaging 3.3 rebounds a game and Joey King is averaging 2.7), it takes away one of the big expected drop-offs from playing with four guards instead. Neither are very aggressive in the paint or capable of posting up. Oddly, the Gophers have actually gotten better rebounding from two guards in Andre Hollins (4.1 a game) and the amazingly improved Austin Hollins (7.1). Come Big Ten competition, sheer size is going to be a problem regardless; Pitino has to decide whether the modest increase in inches in worth it.

With the non-conf schedule basically complete, your prediction: do the Gophs make the dance?

@5844cx

The non-conference schedule is never what I was concerned with, with the Gophers. The non-conference schedule means very little. Minnesota has played well, but they haven’t proved anything at all yet. Overall, I think they’ve wound up about how I expected. Originally, I predicted three losses before the Big Ten, I think, and I wouldn’t have been shocked if they had picked up one more, either at Richmond or against Florida State or against one of the scrappier, no-name teams they’ve played. So the Gophers have done a good job of taking care of business, which is great – but it doesn’t change some of the inherent flaws about this team, most notably the lack of size and natural post players. Those weaknesses will bring a lot of challenges in the Big Ten. So for right now, I’m staying pat on their finish (9th in the league). If the Gophers are going to prove me wrong, it’s going to take a lot more than the non-conference schedule.

#aMAILiaBAG Is the recent Strib article on recruiting having an impact on the Gophers interest in Rashad Vaughn #MoveOn

@LisaBruneau2

I don’t think any of the teams that are recruiting Vaughn are blind to the interesting situation involving his inner circle, and I also think it’s not enough – none of it is illegal, or has been proven to be, mind you -- to make coaches stop wanting to go after a very, very talented player.

Amelia,

Why is is that many Gophers shy away from dunking? Specifically Eliason, Walker, and Osenieks.

Ryan

Well, you just named three of least athletic people on the team, does that answer your question?

Those guys might dunk here and there, but for the most part, if they get the opportunity, they’re probably going to lay it up and avoid getting yelled at.

#aMAILiaBAG Do you ever get writer's block like Barton Fink? If so, how do you get past it?

@GopherBBallFan

Are you kidding? All the time. It’s a part of being a professional writer. I like to think that everyone gets writer’s block sometimes, and if they don’t, don’t tell me because I’m already in a really bad mood.

Sometimes I will just take a walk – you know if it’s during one of the four months where walking in Minnesota without getting frostbite is possible – or go do something else to get inspired like play guitar or meditate. Other times, I just don’t get rid of it, I just yell for a while and then force it, and then just never read it again.

Have a great trip. Sure seems unusual that Buggs has seen virtually no action..could they be saving him?

@JimBlasko

Thanks! I don’t think it’s unusual and I don’t think the Gophers are saving him … I just think he has a ways to go before he is a Division I player.

I saw a creature in my backyard the size of a cat, with whiskers, a tail and tiger like markings. Could it be Sasquatch?

@floidaillini11

It’s possible, but then I would be wrong about everything, ever. (And looking for the very wrong things.)

Gophers postgame: Minnesota defense clamps down perimeter in the 2H, backcourt has a big game against Nebraska Omaha

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: December 21, 2013 - 2:19 AM

Read my game story on tonight's 92-79 victory over Nebraska Omaha here.

Having already notched the 1,000th point of his career, Andre Hollins felt the need to further take control, in the locker room at halftime.

Nebraska Omaha had hit a stunning ten three-pointers in the first half to stay neck-in-neck with Minnesota at the half, when the teams were tied at 44.

"I specifically told the team ‘That’s the only thing that’s keeping them in the game, three-point shooting.’" Hollins said. "My emphasis was chase them off the line, make them put the ball on the floor and try to make a play against our bigs, because they only scored four (two-pointers) in the first half. So we wanted to get them to try to make plays instead of just looking for that three-point shot."

Minnesota was able to do that in the second half, holding the Mavericks without a three-pointer and pulling away in the final minutes with incredible performances from Deandre Mathieu (27 points, four assists, two steals and Malik Smith (19 points, three rebounds, two steals). Both point totals were career highs for the players.

For a no-name opponent in the last game before the holiday break, it was a pretty interesting game to watch. Along with the big milestone for Hollins, who reached the mark one game after teammate Austin Hollins did, the junior guard also grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds. It was his first double-double since high school and something he was more excited about than the 1,000 points, even, he said.

Omaha, ranked No. 8 in the nation in tempo, looked pretty good, and kept the Gophers -- who mixed in man-to-man and a 2-3 zone with their press -- on their toes defensively. When forced to go inside, though, the Mavericks didn't have much success. Meanwhile, Elliott Eliason quietly nearly scored a double-double himself, collecting nine rebounds to go with his ten points and a double-take-worthy four steals.

"Yeah, I don’t know how that happened -- I looked at that, and I thought it was a misprint," coach Richard Pitino said before acknowledging that as the last line of defense in the press, he would like his power forwards and centers to get more steals.

Other notes from tonight's 92-79 win.

  • In the first half, Omaha scored just two of their 44 points in the paint.
  • Andre looked like he was edging out of his shooting slump tonight. He was more aggressive driving to the basket and getting to the foul line, and he finished 6-for-12 from the field. Hollins hasn't made six field goals since Nov. 11 against Coastal Carolina, and he's made more than three just once in the previous five games.
  • Mathieu regretted not getting the assist in Austin Hollins' 1000th point, but said he had no chance getting it to Andre, because the junior was being so aggressive off the dribble. "He was in attack-mode tonight, nobody was going to get that assist tonight," Mathieu said. "He was ready for that bucket."

Pitino: Last two days have been some of the Gophers' best practices

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: December 19, 2013 - 5:26 PM

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."

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