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
Thanks for all your questions. To submit a question for a future aMAILiaBAG, tweet me @AmeliaRayno or email me at email@example.com.
Here we go (your questions in bold):
Was issue between Pitino and Ellenson related to high jump? Is Ellenson still doing track? (resubmitted since no answer before)
I feel like I’ve answered this a bunch but … no, it wasn’t, and yes, I don’t anticipate Wally Ellenson quitting track throughout his collegiate career.
Who do the Gophers have left in non-conference that will provide the best tests before #Big10 play? #aMAILiaBAG
Well New Orleans (Saturday) certainly shouldn’t be that for Minnesota – the Privateers are ranked 350th out of 351 teams according to kenpom.com. South Dakota State (Tuesday) is well-coached and comes in with plenty of motivation every year. The Jackrabbits haven’t had many challenges so far this season, but have shown they’re capable of shooting threes again, and can get hot at any point. Nebraska-Omaha (12/20) has actually been a little intriguing this season. The Mavericks played Iowa and UNLV pretty closely and have displayed some solid defense.
Who should and who likely will step to be the team's consistent #3 scorer?
I think DeAndre Mathieu has a chance to be. Early, he’s been a bit inconsistent, but the guard has found a way to significantly affect several games right at the end. When he’s motivated, his quickness and aggressiveness is hard to stop (even, occasionally for Florida State’s massive frontcourt). Coach Richard Pitino has found success in pushing his buttons at times – if he can find a way to do that all the time, Mathieu could really shine. I feel like he’s only going to get better and better throughout the year. He’s fearless.
What do we think of Pitino's screaming fits in the huddle?...
He’s being a coach. Personally, after watching Tubby Smith slump over his stool, head in hands, I don’t mind a little sideline fire. It’s entertaining. It keeps the players playing with intensity. And what he is yelling about matters. Pitino isn’t raging on a guy for missing a shot or not converting a play – he’s yelling about effort and defense and rebounding the little things. It’s hard to criticize him with the way his players have responded to his coaching style.
Done with our "Mo Walker is big" love fest? Guy plays as big as a small forward. On his best days.
Give him a second, Jiltfast. Walker has his limits, but you’ve only seen him play in two non-DII games since he transformed his entire body. I think he can be a very productive member of the Gophers this year -- he’s learning to be more aggressive, and I like his touch around the basket.
Look, the frontcourt situation isn’t ideal – we all know that – but it’s hard to condemn Walker too much just yet.
#aMAILiaBAG Why so much zone D in Maui? Due to 3 games in 3 days or will it be a staple against bigger teams?
Yeah I think the zone will be one of the Gophers’ main defenses this season. Pitino has used it a lot already, and pretty effectively at times. I think as a whole, Minnesota has executed the 2-3 pretty well. It’s obviously something that Pitino kind of came up with.
How soon could we hear about new Practice facility?
Don’t know, but I wouldn’t expect anything all too immediately. It’s been less than a year since the plan was even unveiled. Fundraising for something of that nature takes time.
How can you possibly cover ACC-BIG 10 Challenge fairly when you are an ACC fan? Hello, Strib editors? Reader Rep? Ombudsman?
I think you're right. I should have tried to argue that and stay in Maui for a few more days.
Will Malik Smith's 'hope & a prayer' approach to 3's destroy what little hairline Pitino has left? #aMAILiaBAG
Pitino knew what he was getting with Smith – after all, he had him for all of last season – and still brought him over to the Gophers. There’s a certain understanding there. Smith brings a special ability to play spark plug. His confidence is unquestioned. All of that comes along with a bit of a longer leash. Smith will throw up some ugly shots sometimes, for sure. And yes – it definitely frustrates Pitino – but he also has shown he’ll make some really big ones as well.
Do you expect Gophers to use short bench during B1G? #aMAILiaBAG
I don’t think Pitino wants to play a short bench, and Syracuse (with a rotation of seven) was probably an anomaly. His system requires a ton of running, so he likes fresh legs. I think what we saw on Tuesday vs. Florida State (six guys off the bench) is probably pretty close to what we can expect all year.
How good will McNeil be?
Really hard to say – we’ve barely seen him play. He needs some more practice.
Are you as bothered by the PF rebounding as I am?
Of course. It’s not ideal, but this is the personnel the Gophers have right now. Minnesota has done a decent job of rebounding by committee so far, which is what they’ll have to continue doing.
Buggs looked surprisingly good last night in a short stint. If he starts to get more PT, who will get less?
I don’t think you’re suddenly going to see a lot more from Charles Buggs – he only played four minutes in the game, so don’t draw too much from it. And though he made that long 2-pointer after he came in, it was pretty obvious that Pitino wasn’t a big fan of the attempt.
Hi. What is your take on apparent program turn around at Iowa and the length of time to accomplish? Thanks for all you do.
Iowa has been playing really well, and I think this could be the year where the Hawkeyes surprise a little bit in the Big Ten. Last year, I remember thinking that they were really a year away from being really good. Their defense has been phenomenal, and now they’ve got some talent. Fran McCaffery has done a really good job there.
52 Fouls, Is this garbage officiating what we are going to have to put up with all year?
We hadn’t seen it as bad as we saw it against Florida State … I think it’s probably going to depend on the officials crew, game-to-game. Tuesday night’s game was called extremely tightly and it was frustrating at times (and just drew out the game to a mind-numbing extent). But the calls went both ways and ultimately it helped the Gophers as they were better from the line down the stretch. But yeah, some of this is just what we can expect from the new fouling rules.
#aMAILiaBAG Does Pitino let the press watch any practices? I recall that Tubby did not.
Pitino doesn’t either. I tried but he shot that idea down. Womp, womp.
Are the gophers looking at anyone else for 2014 besides Vaughn?
Nope, just Vaughn. Just kidding! Of course they are … Abdoulaye Gueye is a guy (big man in Birmingham) they have their sights on in a serious way, and there are others, but the recruiting game will shuffle a bit come spring time.
BONUS BIGFOOT QUESTION:
Who wins in a fight between a killer Hawaiian shark and Bigfoot? Assume sharks can fight on land, Bigfoot can swim. #aMAILiaBAG
I’m going to go with Bigfoot because of it’s versatility. Sharks have teeth only. Bigfoots have hands, arms, legs, feet … oh, and teeth.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino wanted to make darn sure that his players didn’t forget.
In consecutive games against Syracuse and Arkansas in Maui, Minnesota had come out of halftime flat. The Gophers started out the second on the wrong foot in both, and wound up losing both games.
Tuesday, it was a different story. After playing hard against Florida State in the first, the Gophers led by six at the break. At the start of the second, Minnesota put its foot over the Seminoles’ throat, instigating a 10-1 run to stretch their advantage to 15 before three minutes had passed.
Florida State went on some modest runs to come within four points on a few different occasions, but Minnesota was able to use its strong start to the half to continue to contain the Seminoles for the remainder.
“That’s why you play those tournaments because we referenced in the locker room at halftime,” Pitino said. “I said if you guys don’t come out more aggressive than you have in the past, this is a great team, a great coach, they’ll jump you. Luckily we were there. We got off to a great start. They came back, which good teams are going to do and we held them off.”
It was something the players had at the forefront of their minds after hiccups in the islands.
Against Syracuse, the Gophers trailed by 3 at the break, but watched the Orange go on a quick 13-2 run to start the second, giving Minnesota a 14-point deficit to try to dig out of. Arkansas put together a 10-0 run out of the break one game later, turning a five-point Gophers advantage into a five-point shortfall.
“Our last two performances out of halftime, we weren’t very strong and we gave up runs,” DeAndre Mathieu. “Coach enforced that we’ve got to have a big spurt out of halftime. We just motivated and talked to each other like we can’t let them get on a run or we’ll get in trouble.”
On Tuesday, that might have been the difference between a win – so far the signature – and a loss. The Gophers needed most of that padding to weather the anticipated late runs by the Seminoles. Against teams like Florida State, Austin Hollins pointed out, it’s hard to take a deep breath until the clock runs down to 0.0.
The victory makes a big impact on the immediate outlook of the Gophers. After a somewhat rough tournament, coming home with a very strong win will mean a lot for the final non-conference stretch. And who knows just how good that win will look when Minnesota’s postseason resume is being examined.
“Moving forward, this is a great win for us,” Austin Hollins said. “They beat VCU, took Florida down to the wire. They’re a battle-tested team and they’ll probably be in the NCAA tournament.”
Read my game story on the 71-61 win over Florida State here.
Hey, maybe size doesn't matter after all.
The Gophers, at least, proved capable of overcoming a lack of it for one night -- going up against the much bigger Florida State and stifling the Seminoles defensively, coming out with a 71-61 victory.
After a tough three games in three days in Maui, coming back with a win over the hearty Seminoles on Tuesday was huge for the Gophers. Minnesota returned to Williams Arena in a strong way, capturing by far their biggest win of the season over a team that beat VCU and lost to No. 22 Michigan and No. 15 Florida by a combined three points.
"We knew coming in that this was going to be a big win for us," DeAndre Mathieu said. "We watch ESPN, we see them play and everybody talking about how good they are, how big they are so it’s a big win. Our first big win. We let Syracuse get off. It just feels good to get a quality win over a good team."
Mathieu's toughness at the end of the game was a big part of the Gophers pulling out what turned out to be a close game at the end after Minnesota's early second half 12-point lead shriveled away. With 1:48 to go the tiny guard landed a layup in heavy traffic and amongst the Seminoles bigs to stretch the Gophers' lead to six and push them to the finish line.
In a game that wasn't always pretty -- with 52 fouls called on the two teams combined and the contest drawing out to nearly 2.5 hours -- the Gophers took care of business. They overcame a lax shooting night (34 percent from the field) with stout defense, speeding up the Seminoles and forcing Florida State into 17 turnovers with their press while containing 7-footers Boris Bojanovsky and Michael Ojo inside.
The Gophers were out-rebounded 36-32, a differential that's not too shabby considering Minnesota was smaller at almost every position.
"We controlled the game," Andre Hollins said. "We don’t let size count us out. We went to Syracuse, we were a couple plays away from pulling that game out. We just have to compete – that’s our style of basketball. Just being tough, boxing out, rebounding."
Other notes from the win:
Richard Pitino said he sees something new in shooting guard Malik Smith -- and it's not necessarily the shooting precision and higher point totals that have come along as well.
What the coach sees is trust.
In the last three games, Pitino has played Smith an average of 27.6 minutes per game after the senior logged 18.6 a game in the first five.
The baskets, Pitino knew, would come. It's what he saw all last year at Florida International. But it's no coincidence they seem to be falling more than ever now. Smith is on the court more, which allows him to get in a comfort zone. And he's on the floor more because he's doing a better job at the little things.
"At FIU, he was not a great defender," Pitino said. "And honestly a lot of that had to do with he knew he wasn’t coming out. So I could yell and scream at him as much as possible but then I couldn’t take him out. So he had me. But now he knows if he doesn’t do those things, that leash is a little bit shorter ...
"Now, he’s defensively pressuring a lot better. He really wasn’t a great leader at FIU. You’re hearing him a lot more in time outs, so I’m proud of him. I think he’s understanding that he needs to bring those things or he’s going to sit."
The new role took some time for Smith to balance. After being the primary scorer at FIU, the guard has come off the bench at Minnesota, a change that required a lot of adjustment.
Pitino said he didn't think he handled it well in the beginning, and noted that Smith was "really really frustrated." But that sentiment has come around, and the results are evident. In the last three games, Smith has led the team with a total of 47 points.
"The first couple games for me were pretty rough," Smith said. "I was pretty hard on myself. Got in the gym as much as possible after practice, before practice, getting up shots. And I just came into Maui with the mindset that I’m going to be aggressive no matter what, and that’s what I just tried to do."
It's still not pretty all the time -- Smith has the tendency to get cocky with his shot when it's falling -- but Pitino has always said it's part of the give-and-take with a player that is able to provide such a big spark.
"Coach tells me that all the time – don’t be scared when you’re out there. Just go out there and be aggressive, take shots if you’re open," Smith said. He laughed. "Sometimes I don’t do that. I know I take some contested shots sometimes but coach says he’ll deal with it as long as I rebound and play defense."
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.’"
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