This is Amelia Rayno's second season on the Gophers' 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
Former Gophers players Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams were far from being considered highly touted NBA draft prospects when the pair left Minnesota behind at the end of the season.
Williams wasn’t invited to the NBA draft combine, and both have flickered in and out of mock drafts, mainly amongst the mid-to-low second round selections.
But in the last couple weeks, the two have turned some heads, each in their own way.
Here are just a few of the things that are being discussed:
• First, an interesting and nicely done story with Mbakwe’s thoughts from our NBA reporter, Jerry Zgoda.
• There has been a lot of talk about Mbakwe being undersized, but some of the measurements wowed. For a player that is 6-8, the power forward’s 7-4 wingspan is awe-inducing.
• Mbakwe also owns the biggest mitts at this year’s combine, his hand width measuring 11.5 inches and he’s tied for second (with Royce White of all people) in that category for at least the past four years.
• It’s also been noted how fit he is – Mbakwe’s body fat came in at just 5.9 percent.
• Mbakwe’s sprint time at the combine was among the fastest for big men at 3.32.
• New Timberwolves Director of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders had some nice things to say about Mbakwe’s performance. So did a few others. And let it be known that the 24-year-old has clearly not lost his spirit.
• While the four-year Gophers player didn’t participate at Chicago’s combine, he did attend the pre-NBA draft combine in Rutherford, N.J. and continued to wow with his athleticism, long the instigator of many gaping mouths. His 36-inch no-step and 42.5-inch max vertical leap would have ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in this year’s combine had he participated, according to Draft Express.
• That vertical leap? Good enough to be in the top 10 all-time.
• Saunders had some nice things to say about Williams too, who apparently also had the best time in the defensive slide.
A few mock drafts:
*Draft Express has Trevor Mbakwe getting drafted in the second round and Rodney Williams not at all.
*CBS Sports has Rodney Williams getting drafted at No. 50 overall and Trevor Mbakwe at No. 53.
*NBADraft.net also has Mbakwe going at No. 53 and Williams at No. 57.
There’s been quite a bit of buzz in Minneapolis this spring.
First Tubby Smith was fired, a move that was criticized by some, but largely supported across a fan base that had very loudly become dissatisfied with the former coach’s six years of mediocrity in the Big Ten (and had stuffed my inbox with thoughts of that nature). Then, after an anxiety-inducing coaching search, along came Richard Pitino, who has made himself quickly popular with the masses with his smooth talk and promises of bringing an exciting style to the often slow-paced Gophers. Three recruits have already signed. By all accounts, it’s been more of an exciting spring than usual for Gophers basketball, which is usually pret-tay slow this time of year.
So it’s not surprising, then, that it seems as though optimism abounds. With a new coach, a new system and a handful of new players (and untapped players from a year ago), why couldn’t Minnesota make a big leap right away?
Well, just hold onto your “Big Ten champion” screen prints and blank T-shirts. Despite all the positive developments, there are other major hints that next year might not be all glory and Ws. Though the Big Ten as a whole is losing a lot of stars, for the most part, the top still looks incredibly strong, as I wrote recently. Other teams -- such as Illinois, which has the 17th ranked freshman class in the nation and Purdue, whose freshman class lands at No. 23, nationwide – will improve around the Gophers. Meanwhile, Minnesota itself is dealing with a very thin frontcourt and a sudden scoring deficit after the losses of Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams.
I don’t want to be the Negative Nancy here (I also heard Rayno-on-my-parade and Rayno Ruiner last season, if you’d like to give either of those a spin), but it’s important not to forget that though the Gophers might have a better foundation to build on for the future, the now could still be a little shaky. Pitino can be a good coach and still have a losing record in the Big Ten next year.
So is it a rebuilding year? That seems to be the popular thought. The Gophers are not on the cusp of any of the super early Top 25 rankings coming out, and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi didn’t even put them in with the seven Big Ten teams that made his ridiculously early preseason NCAA tournament bracket. Big Ten Network’s Brent Yarina actually put the Gophers DEAD LAST in his power rankings for next year, if you can believe it (Yes, even Rayno Ruiner thinks that’s a little harsh). Both national experts I recently spoke with – CBS Sports’ Jeff Borzello and NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster – concur that the Gophers will land safely in the bottom half of the league.
Alls I’m saying is that too high of expectations lead to a much more dramatic “thump” than do realistic ones.
Could the Gophers surprise? Certainly. They still have a solid backcourt, rooted by the promising Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins. And who knows what Pitino will be able to get out of other current players with a new approach. Minnesota still has the chance to sign a big man or two, and improve the depth of the forward corps.
I do think that the firing/search/hiring/signings put the Gophers in a better position for eventual growth. But things – in the Big Ten, certainly – don’t happen overnight. If the Gophers do turn some heads, one should sufficiently understand (and appreciate) that reality for the surprise that it would be.
Malik Smith, a 6-2, 170-pound guard originally from Boston, Mass. verbally committed to new Gophers coach Richard Pitino on Wednesday morning. Smith played for Pitino last season at Florida International, where the senior-to-be averaged 14.1 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists a game. Smith is Pitino's third commit (all guards) at Minnesota. Here is Smith on a number of subjects:
I know you had several other schools interested in you -- was it a tough decision to choose Minnesota in the end?
It wasn't tough at all. When I think about playing with coach Pitino again, it seemed like an easy transition coming from FIU and already playing in the system and already knowing the tendencies and him seeing my tendencies. So once I knew he was interested, I pretty much knew I was going to go.
When did he reach out to you?
Maybe about 2 or 3 weeks ago ... I just wanted to see all the schools that were interested and then compare each situation.
What originally drew you to playing for him?
He's a demanding coach, he's going to get the best out of you. His system works with anybody -- I think his system works with anybody. It's very up-tempo, fast-paced, a lot of pressing, a lot of shots and it's proven to work. Last year, we were picked to be (number) 11 out of 12 teams in the Sun Belt and we ended up being fourth I think and going to the conference championship game. So I'm sure he knows what he's doing and I think he'll do it again and turn things around at Minnesota.
What was last year like? The team had so many different players from all over the place, a new coach -- how was it trying to find chemistry?
The experience was good. Coach Pitino, he's not just recruiting good players, he's recruiting good people. So when I got there, I saw that everybody was good guys and everybody got along fine, so that made the transition easy. And then coach Pitino is going to make you work hard, so that wasn't a problem.
Was it a project to get everyone on same page with new system, etc?
It was just us getting used to the system. It was rough at first. The first couple scrimmages. But once we got used to pressing and knowing what coach wants, it was easy.
Did you just condition all the time to get in shape to do that?
A lot of conditioning with our strength and conditioning coach. And then on top of that, practice is just all up and down, up and down, up and down. So he's going to get us in shape in Minnesota. And I believe it's going to work out fine.
Do you feel like that's going to be one of your roles, already knowing the system, to help get guys transitioned?
Definitely. I think I'll be able to lead by example with plays, talking to guys, helping them understand it faster -- rather than coach having to tell everybody, I can help tell people what to do on the court.
Have you played mostly at the 2 or at point in your career?
Yeah, some of both, but at FIU, I played mostly 2 because we had a backup at the point guard position, we had about three point guards.
Do you have a preference in that regard or one that you feel more comfortable with? No, no preference. Whatever coach Pitino wants me to do, I'll do.
You haven't been to Minnesota yet, have you? No -- I think I'll be visiting up there in about 2 weeks, they said.
Have you talked to Pitino much about your role yet? No, we haven't gotten into it yet. We talk often, but we haven't gotten into depth about any of that.
How do you feel about playing in the Big Ten? That should be a pretty big adjustment.
I mean, yeah. It's a bigger stage, probably a lot better players. But my main thing is coming to Minnesota and trying to fit in and do what I can do to help the team win.
Are you close with Rakeem Buckles? Yeah definitely. Rakeem is my guy.
Are you going to be angling for him to join you at Minnesota now?
Haha, yeah, definitely. I'm going text him tonight and be like 'Rakeem ... let's make it happen."
It looks like Alex Foster has stayed loyal to former Gophers coach Tubby Smith.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Foster gave a verbal commitment to Smith a second time on Wednesday morning, this time at Texas Tech, where the head coach landed after being fired from Minnesota in March.
The 6-8 Foster decommitted after reportedly being told by the new Gophers staff that they wanted to move in a different direction. Foster was one of two recruits Smith had originally landed at Minnesota for the 2013-14 class. The other, Alvin Ellis, is now at Michigan State. Without Foster, the Gophers are lacking any incoming forwards in the current recruiting class.
New Gophers coach Richard Pitino has gotten three commitments in just more than a month's time.
Hours after news of Joe Coleman asking for his release late Tuesday evening, one of Pitino's former players at Florida International decided to jump on board.
Around 9:00 on Wednesday morning, guard Malik Smith tweeted the news, which he had been alluding to for days.
Smith will be eligible to play next season, a team source confirmed.
The guard played for Pitino last year at FIU, averaging 14.1 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 33.1 minutes a game. The 6-2, 170-pound junior, who has one year of eligibility left, is from Boston originally.
Smith represents Pitino's third commitment -- all guards -- since the new Minnesota coach took over. Pitino has had de-commitments from the two recruits already on board from Tubby Smith's class -- Alvin Ellis (now at Michigan State) and Alex Foster (who reportedly was told the team was going in a different direction). If Coleman indeed transfers -- official word could come today -- the Gophers will still have two scholarships remaining.
Smith would likely be available immediately by way of the NCAA waiver that allows student-athletes to transfer if their current institution is banned from postseason play. It looks as if FIU, due to dismal academic scores (recorded mostly under the tenure of former coach Isiah Thomas) will lose those privileges.
Here is the full exception, taken straight from the NCAA bylaws:
On the recommendation of the Committee on Athletics Certification for a student-athlete who transfers to
a member institution to continue the student-athlete’s opportunity for full participation in a sport because
the student-athlete’s original institution, per Bylaw 22.3.3, is placed in a membership category that would
preclude the institution’s team in that sport from participating in postseason competition during all of the
remaining seasons of the student-athlete’s eligibility.
(Adopted: 1/16/93 effective 1/1/94)
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