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
When the Gophers faced Syracuse last week in the first round of the Maui Invitational, it was obvious they were short-handed.
With Mo Walker serving the last game of his six-game suspension and Joey King still nursing a fractured jaw, foul trouble was a real issue. Center Elliott Eliason was forced to sit for stretches and the Orange clobbered Minnesota in the paint at times, using its sheer size to overwhelm the Gophers. Even so, Minnesota played Syracuse closely, coming within two points with two minutes to go, and ultimately losing 75-67.
Now, a similar team comes to Williams Arena in Florida State – and the Gophers will see how much of a difference the full complement of frontcourt players makes. Minnesota is still undersized, particularly against the big, physical Seminoles, who have a pair of 7-footers in Boris Bojanovsky and Michael Ojo. Florida State is battle-tested and extremely tough. In a bit of scheduling misery for coach Richard Pitino -- "Embrace?" He asked aloud on Monday? "No. Fear? Yes. Embrace would not be the right word." -- the matchup falls immediately after returning from three games in three days on the islands.
Calling tonight’s game an incredibly demanding challenge is an understatement.
‘They’re big, they’re strong,” Pitino said of the Seminoles. “We’ve got to try to use our speed as a bit of a strength … Syracuse, it appeared they were going over our back on a lot of rebounds. They were just so much bigger. We’ve got to do a better job of blocking out and driving them back. So we’ve got to try to speed them up a little bit more and try not to get in the half court as much as possible.”
The Gophers have the advantage of being able to watch film of this Florida State team facing opponents that tried to do many of the same things Minnesota will tonight. Florida State has already played VCU – with its ‘havoc’-style basketball – and Florida, whose coach, Billy Donovan was one of the major inspirations for Pitino’s own philosophy. But the data isn’t necessarily all that encouraging.
The Seminoles won decidedly over VCU in Richmond, and then came within a single point of beating No. 15 Florida on their court.
Both opponents have many more players recruited to the specific style, and have been doing it much longer than the Gophers – and both failed to ease FSU out of its comfort zone in a meaningful way.
“I thought they did a really good job of attacking Florida’s press,” Pitino said of the Seminoles. “They did some good things to beat it, score some buckets against it. We’ve got to make them earn their buckets in my opinion. I think they’re a very talented team.”
Other notes on tonight’s game:
With Maui in the rearview, there is no shortage of intriguing scheduling ahead.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino said on Monday that Minnesota is confirmed for next season's preseason tournament: the preseason NIT, which is held at Madison Square Garden in New York City,
"If you’re going to recruit the east coast and we want to recruit nationally, we believe we can -- given an opportunity to play in Madison Square Garden, that’s as cool an arena as you’re ever going to be in," Pitino said. "Makes you feel like you’re a pro when you’re in there."
Pitino also wrote in his Gophers blog that a Nov. 14, 2014 game against Louisville in Puerto Rico is almost a done deal, and that the staff is "99 percent sure it will happen but we are just ironing out some details."
The game would be held on a military hangar on a base there, ideally.
The Minnesota coach had expressed some hesitation in scheduling an immediate game against his father, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, and the perennially tough Cardinals because he didn't love the idea of jumping into a competitive relationship with his dad.
But when ESPN called the elder Pitino and suggested the game, the Gophers coach ultimately decided -- particular after Michigan State AD Mark Hollis visited the staff and shared his thoughts on scheduling -- that it was a move that would be good for the program's exposure.
"I just thought about it and I thought if we want to get to where we’re going, it’s all about elevating this program with everything we do," Pitino said. "It’s not just about beating Florida State tomorrow. We want to get to the level of Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana, and I think one of those things you’ve got to do to do that is you’ve got to be innovative with your scheduling. [Michigan State coach] Tom Izzo has been a master of that .He’s always been really good at it. I think this is a great way to get our brand out there, to get people talking about Minnesota."
That doesn't mean Pitino is feeling completely at ease with the idea of his Gophers starting out with one of the best squads in college basketball, however.
"I’m hoping they have a bad practice before and they stink," Pitino said. "They’re not always good early, so that’s my hope is that they drop a few early. Anytime you play a team like Louisville, you’ve got to understand what you’re going against. So as much as people are going to make it about Father- Son, when that game starts, it’s all about between the lines. We’ve got a lot of guys back, so I thought ‘You know what? This would be a good time to play them.’"
Aloha kakahiaka, hau’oli Lapule!
I’ve made it to Maui and am already Googling greetings (“Good morning, happy Sunday,” of course).
Mahalo for all of your questions. I hope some of you have made it to the island as well. All of the tournament’s teams have availability today, so I’ll pass along any notes later. For now, let’s get on to the questions.
Seems like the #Gophers really enjoy the triple. Are they too 3-centric early on? Or is it just how the roster's built?
I think generally, when a team is doing well at something and winning, it’s hard to argue that it’s too much of a focus. So far, the Gophers are connecting on 34.1 percent from beyond the arc – which is good, because certainly Minnesota plans for perimeter shooting to be a big part of their game plan.
The other half of this is that with the frontcourt built the way it is – not a lot of depth or bulk there – the Gophers are going to HAVE to shoot more than they would, say, if they still had a Trevor Mbakwe-type rooting the post to throw the ball into. Is that ideal? No, and it makes them susceptible to a bad shooting night. But right now, it’s who they have to be, and they’re doing it well.
Have [the Gophers] shown us anything to get excited about? It's early but is progress being seen with the players and new system?
Sure, I think so. The win at Richmond should excite Gophers fans, because it was a tough environment for a team that is still coming together. The win against Wofford on Thursday should make Gophers feel good because that contest was the very definition of a trap game, and Minnesota didn’t fall in – it came to play. And generally, while I still maintain that this year’s Gophers team has its limits, I think what coach Richard Pitino has done already is impressive. He has taken the roster that he inherited/quickly put together and gotten the most out of it. The Gophers are functioning as a cohesive group, rather than the collection of parts they looked like at times last year. They’ve transformed their bodies and their attitudes, and you’re seeing the on-court confidence lead to on-court results. Several players, like Oto Osenieks and Elliott Eliason have improved dramatically. If you’re a Gophers fan and you’re not happy with where this team is at right now, you’re not paying attention.
Has it been determined if MN will be a participant in any of the holiday tourneys next year?
Nothing is set yet … but there are rumblings about the Paradise Jam (St. Thomas) …
Seems like the crowds have been leaner at the barn so far. Heard anything from students while you're around campus on why?
It’s always kind of sparce this time of year. Attendance so far is actually up a little bit from a year ago, when the Gophers drew 42,648 through four games. This year, they’ve hit 43,895 so far.
If no king for Syracuse any chance Pitino lets Mo free a game early, or are we just screwed in the frontcourt?
First of all, it’s not up to him. It’s university policy, not team policy. And even if it were, there’s no chance he would do that.
Still early, but after a handful of games are there any changes to your predictions for the final #big10 rankings? #aMAILiaBAG
I haven’t watched enough non-Gophers in the conference to make the call about any other teams. But I still think 9th or maybe 8th is pretty reasonable for Minnesota. Pitino has gotten the team to really buy in and respond to their shortcomings, but there are still shortcomings. Come January, the size of the frontcourt is going to be a concern.
Don't you think brakes need to be pumped on Oto? At least until we see what he has during B1G play?
We’re not in the heart of the Big Ten schedule yet, if that’s what you mean. But I’m not sure what you mean by “pump the brakes.” Curb your enthusiasm? Sure – if you’re concerned about getting overly excited and then overly disappointed when Osenieks fails to produce the same results in conference play. But that goes for everyone, right? Osenieks isn’t suddenly competing for the Naismith, but it is pretty obvious that he’s improved. Just look at his shooting percentage from three-point range last year. Just look at his confidence on the court. Watch how much more involved in both the offense and the defense than he was a year ago, and how aggressive he is in doing the little things. Osenieks will take his lumps in the Big Ten, but we might as well give the forward his due – he’s earned it.
How would you evaluate Buggs and Wally's play [on Thursday]? Moving forward, do you see them making any significant contributions?
I thought Ellenson played pretty well – he finished with seven points, two rebounds, an assist and a steal, and helping to keep the Gophers rolling near the end of the game. Wofford wasn’t the strongest opponent, mind you, but if Ellenson keeps doing that, he’ll get a bigger role in the rotation. Buggs had a pair of blocks, which was good, but he needs to be stronger in the paint. Both of those guys need to get better defensively.
If the Gophers win the National Championship, who play Pitino in the movie? My money is Gene Wilder
Oh boy. I’m not sure I should even answer this one.
I'm wondering about this new defense. I like the energy, and the potential for each basket to turn into a scoring run, after all basketball is a game of scoring runs. But so far we have seen that it has tended to end scoring runs, and lead to quick 3-point buckets for the opposing teams. I know it may take time to develop and have guys work together for traps and steals, but can this really work going forward? Especially up against well coached teams like Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Time will tell. This is a new defense for the Gophers so it will take some time. The Gophers have certainly been effective with the press at points and have been able to shake teams out of their comfort zone. Certainly, it will need to get tighter, especially heading into the conference slate, where opponents will be faster and craftier, and could pose a hell-like situation for the very undersized frontcourt if the Gophers aren’t able to scramble out of the press quick enough when teams are beating it.
Also, is every Brian/Bryan with a ‘W’ last name ‘B-dub?’ It’s a rule, right?
I have a couple questions for mailbag, 1, Have Richard and Wally made-up (and the nature of their disagreement), and 2, What effect do you think it will have on Henry's recruitment. Thanks.
Yes, Richard and Wally have made up, which is why you see the latter playing. As long as something else doesn’t happen, I don’t think it should affect the Gophers’ recruitment of Henry Ellenson (No. 42 nationally in 2015, according to Rivals.com).
Hang 10. Michigan looks better than last year. Stauskas drove, stuffed. Explosive! 12-pt deficit kapoof! Surprised? #aMAILiabag
I have not managed to surf yet. (Give me time, I just got here!)
Not surprised that the Wolverines look a bit better than last year, at least early on. Once the conference slate rolls around, Michigan might miss guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., but they have a host of other stars, including Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, each with a year of experience behind them. I anticipate both of them taking another big step this season, and keeping the Wolverines among the elite.
Who's our best perimeter defender this season?
Austin Hollins, still, when he’s out there. Andre Hollins is looking a lot better defensively as well.
Do you see the team turning heads and making the big dance? Or are we a year or two away?
I still think that’s a tough challenge given the personnel. No one wants to hear this, I know, but a good run in the NIT would be an accomplishment.
Silly question but is the press ever able to fly with the team?
Some radio journos do, but not the print media. We all have to fend for ourselves, which means less cushy flights, more connections and more accidental overnight layovers in Cincinnati (see: my return trip from Richmond).
It wouldn’t really be possible anyway. Often, the team heads back right after a game, while I still have hours of work to do.
It seems like Pitino's the anti-Tubby [Smith, former Gophers coach] when it comes to praising players and building confidence. Fair assessment?
They’re just different coaches, although players have already commented on how positive Pitino is. The new coach isn’t constantly praising his players – he has been very blunt both on his blog and with the media about different individuals’ struggles and weaknesses – but I think the major difference is the players all know where they stand with Pitino at all times. He tells them what they’re doing wrong, and then commends them when they make steps to fixing it. Smith praised his players too, of course, but it seems like Pitino has been a little more consistent in his feedback.
Who has the best chance at being drafted at this time? #aMAILiaBAG
I don’t think anyone will go in next year’s draft if that’s what you mean. But right now, Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins are the only players close to NBA material, and even they have more work to do.
That’s not to say that others can’t get there, just that they aren’t there yet.
Mail bag : The way EE has been playing us encouraging and Mo will be fine too. What's scary is the 4 spot come BIG PLAY, do you see this as a huge weakness for the Gophers?
It’s an area that will need to be overcome, yeah, as has been the theme all fall. Both of those guys – Osenieks and Joey King – have exceeded my expectations for them early, but they still represent a very small and thin corps at that position. It will be a challenge to battle with the other physical 4s in the league, for sure.
Jarvis Johnson on U's radar? What will it take to get a four- or five star recruit?
Jarvis Johnson is more than on the U’s radar. Pitino offered the 2015 point guard almost immediately after taking the job at Minnesota and the coaching staff loves him. He’d be a great fit for the system and a good option for down the road with Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu using up their eligibility the year before.
#aMAILiaBAG The Gopher bigs have looked great, but isn't Syracuse the first team with front court size, so first real test?
Definitely, especially since the Gophers will still be shorthanded. Mo Walker will still have one game remaining in his six-game suspension and Joey King may or may not play (fractured jaw). The Orange has been very physical inside and will create a big challenge for Elliott Eliason and whoever else is playing defense at the 4-spot. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing the Gophers do a fair amount of zone.
BONUS BIGFOOT QUESTIONS:
Any #bigfoot type of creatures in Hawaii? #elchupacabra_hawaii_style?
I thought long and hard about this the other night, and learned from Wikipedia that before the Polynesians came over, there were only bugs, birds, seals and bats on the islands. Anything else that’s there now was brought over. So unless the Polynesians had a bigfoot stowaway, I don’t think there are any dwelling there. Also, an island would seem a very dangerous spot for bigfoot. As the area is commercialized, there becomes a smaller and smaller amount of space to hide. Yikes!
Stu … I think you’re onto something. Cain has returned and molded himself into television host so he can prove he’s not the real bigfoot. Or … something?
The frontcourt has long been considered to be the Gophers' liability. At the start of the year, there simply wasn't enough size, there weren't enough bodies and wasn't enough experience in the group.
All of that will still present big challenges to overcome once the Gophers get into the meatier part of the schedule.
But on Thursday, with the Gophers undermanned in the game before the Maui Invitational, which the team left for today, the Minnesota frontcourt seemed able and eager to pick up the slack.
Eliason effectively played the role of rim protector and flirted with a triple-double, recording 11 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocks (a career high). Osenieks had 14 points and five rebounds (12 points and five rebounds in the first half, before getting into foul trouble). Both moved well with and without the ball and had good defensive positioning, despite that Osenieks had never played center before (and only had one day to learn the position in practice).
The rest of the frontcourt was in street clothes. Joey King sat out because of a fractured jaw sustained in Tuesday's game, and Mo Walker served the fifth game of a six-game suspension for violating university policy.
Afterward, coach Richard Pitino gushed a little.
"Oto and Elliott were tremendous," he said. "Elliott, certainly, almost getting a triple-double. He continues to grow, continues to get better. When you’re playing without two guys who play significant minutes, [that's impressive]. And then Oto was very good offensively. I just love the confidence that he’s playing with right now. I keep telling him don’t worry about anything just play aggressively. He’s showing that. To do that without two guys that are going to play major, major minutes and do it with all the type of odd lineups that we played with tonight -- I mean, Oto played the five, and that’s tough to do because he never practices at the five. It’s not like we had three days to prepare. We only had one day to prepare. That shows his basketball IQ."
To be clear, Wofford was not a very good team and didn't pose nearly as big a threat as some of the games Minnesota has already played this season. But getting players to dominate against bad teams isn't always a given -- look through the box scores of the last couple of seasons, when even the Gophers' best players were often up and down through the non-conference schedule.
The Gophers' frontcourt still is lacking girth and experience, areas that will likely be exploited down the road. But what Pitino and the rest of the Minnesota staff should be credited for is the way they've gotten their players to perform early on. The coaches embraced what they had and have absolutely gotten the most out of it so far. To the players' credit, they've bought into the system and the game plan completely, and done the work to improve.
When the players talk about Pitino, it explains some of the impact. Osenieks has expressed how much more comfortable he feels this year after the coaching change, and last night, Eliason explained just how much he enjoys the new system.
"When we first started scrimmaging each other, you kind of got the feeling, ‘Man, this is pretty cool,'" Eliason said. "When I first came in, I wasn’t sure how it was going to be but the more I learned, the more I talked to coach Pitino, the more we played, I thought, wow, this is a great style for me. I’m going to get out in run, especially if I get into shape, lose a little weight. Once you buy into the system you really appreciate it a little more, have a little fun, and I’m having a blast."
Both of those sentiments, from Osenieks and Eliason, are showing on the court. The pair took their jobs seriously and played with great energy and intensity. In the past couple of weeks, the two frontcourt players seem to have grown tremendously and are exuding confidence on the court -- they look like different players from the ones we saw a year ago. Give the players the credit for doing the work, and the coaches the credit for connecting in a very effective way.
Other notes and quotes:
Read my game story on the Gophers' 79-57 win over Wofford here.
It could have been easy for the Gophers to space out for tonight's game against Wofford.
After Tuesday's win over Coastal Carolina, there was just one day of turnaround, one practice to prepare for a new team and a game in which the Gophers would be even more shorthanded without forward Joey King, who fractured his jaw after colliding with Andre Hollins.
Looming ahead, was a trip to Hawaii and a first-round matchup against No. 9 Syracuse.
But instead of getting caught up in the past or the future, the Gophers simply buckled down and effectively took care of business (even if admittedly, against a pretty bad team).
"I really believe it’s harder to play these games than it is at Richmond or Syracuse in Maui," coach Richard Pitino said. "Because we don’t have to get them excited for those game. You come out here, earlier start, it was kind of a late-arriving crowd, people coming from work or whatever. You’ve got to get it from within."
The Gophers did, getting momentous performances from the two forwards remaining in the rotation: center Elliott Eliason (11 rebounds, 11 points, 7 blocks) and power forward Oto Osenieks (14 points, five rebounds). Both had a little bit of foul trouble, but thankfully for the Gophers, they had no trouble dealing with it. Osenieks had to play at center at a few points in the first half with Eliason on the bench with a pair of fouls. Then, when Osenieks picked up his third, Austin Hollins (18 points, eight rebounds) took the four-spot in a four-guard lineup.
"Oto and Elliott were tremendous," Pitino said. "[Eliason] continues to grow, continues to get better ... And then Oto was very good offensively. I just love the confidence that he’s playing with right now. I keep telling him don’t worry about anything just play aggressively. He’s showing that. To do that without two guys that are going to play major, major minutes and do it with all the type of odd lineups that we played with tonight. I mean, Oto played the five, and that’s tough to do because he never practices at the five. It’s not like we had three days to prepare. We only had one day to prepare. That shows his basketball IQ."
Pitino said he hopes King will be available on Monday for the Syracuse matchup, but he would have a better idea in Hawaii. The Gophers leave for the island tomorrow.
"I think Saturday I’ll have a much better feel," Pitino said. "He’s such a tough kid. I see him and he’s holding an ice pack to his cheek. I say ‘How are you feeling?’ and he says ‘I’m feeling great.’ He doesn’t look great, but that’s what he does. I’ll have a good gauge on Saturday, we’re going to practice Saturday afternoon. You never know with travel and whatever it may be how that stuff will happen. I hope he’s playing though."
A few other notes from tonight's game:
|Sports (2)||Basketball (8)|
|College basketball (818)||Gophers coaches (120)|
|Gophers players (717)||Tubby Smith (37)|
|Williams Arena (9)||Gophers game day (43)|
|Gophers postgame (6)||NCAA (2)|
|The Big Dance (8)||Gophers awards and honors (1)|
|Gophers post season (4)||Gophers roster moves (5)|
|Minnesota colleges (1)|