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
The Big Ten season, what we've all been waiting for, is less than a week away. We all know that this next part of the schedule is when teams make themselves into true contenders or fall apart against the conference's constant grind. But already, there has been plenty to intrigue through the fall. Five things around the league that have surprised me thus far:
Michigan's early struggles: Yes, they're young. Yes, they've lost star guards Trey Burke an Tim Hardaway Jr. But the Wolverines appear as though they still have a long way to go to compete at the top of the Big Ten, as they were expected to. The Wolverines lost to Charlotte in November, and have been unable to sufficiently challenge very talented teams (with losses to Iowa State, Duke and Arizona) Mitch McGary's health issues (again) isn't helping anything, but the Wolverines do have plenty of talent around the sophomore big man.
Aaron White's third-year transformation: OK, it's not so much a surprise as just really fun to watch. I've liked the 6-9 forward since he landed in Iowa, the only major school to really recruit him. Now, in his junior season, he's becoming the complete player he's seemed capable of from the start. White is so versatile, with his capacity for rebounding and battling inside as well as his ability to take the ball off the dribble and shoot the three. His 25-point, 17-rebound game against Iowa State was nothing short of impressive. Yes, Aaron White has arrived.
LaQuinton Ross has been good, not great, and yet Ohio State is still thriving: Ross, who received some preseason Big Ten player of the year nods, looks with each passing game as though he might be ready to take that next step soon, but for now, the Buckeyes success is truly a team effort. Unlike a year ago, when Ohio State WAS Deshaun Thomas, this version of the Buckeyes is a story of balance-- an approach that was able to overcome Notre Dame at Madison Square Garden this past weekend when each starter average between 9 and 16 points.
Wisconsin's prowess: It's hard to deny how good the Badgers have been early, putting up their best start in the modern era of the program. Wisconsin has perennially been good, but the "great" so far has been the result of consistency throughout the lineup, great outside shooting and the young team's ability to compensate for the veteran starting frontcourt, all of which is gone after last year. The freshman have been solid, Josh Gasser has been great in his return from ACL surgery and Sam Dekker has appeared to take the next step. Basically, everything is clicking for the Bo Ryan boys.
Penn State probably doesn't belong at the bottom of the league anymore: With Tim Frazier back from an ACL tear and now Pitt transfer John Johnson joining D.J. Newbill, the Nittany Lions have arguably the best backcourt in the Big Ten. Penn State will still take their lumps, and have showed they still have a ways to go, allowing Princeton to return from a 20-point deficit for the Tigers win, but there is plenty of promise in State College. Right now, the Nittany Lions don't look much different from Minnesota, Illiinois, Purdue or Nebraska.
When both Harvard and Vegas agree that your team has the best chance to win, things are looking pretty good, no?
The ‘U’ has officially selected a well-known master planning firm to sketch out how the school can realistically move forward with athletic facilities in the next 5-15 years.
Athletic Director Norwood Teague said POPULOUS -- a Kansas City-based design and planning firm that has stockpiled an impressive resume both locally and world-wide – was chosen for the job last week.
POPULOUS (formerly HOK Sport) will not necessarily do the specific design for any facilities; rather, it will lay out a loose blueprint of what the ‘U’ wants to and can feasibly do, and provide precise cost estimates.
Teague has said a basketball practice facility is at the top of the list, along with a new supplemental facility for football, and that it is a “need more than a want.” He estimated that the planning phase would take about three months – then Minnesota would hope to move into a design phase with at least some projects.
Other notable projects by POPULOUS:
-Locally, Target Field and TCF Bank Stadium
-Other prominent facilities nation and world-wide, including Yankee Stadium, Wimbledon Centre Court and the Olympic Stadium in London.
Announcing via a video (embedded below) that he has "unfinished business," Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe will officially return for another season with the men's basketball team.
Mbakwe, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in late November, was recently granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. He had hinted he was going to return, but Monday's announcement makes it official.
"I think it is beneficial for many reasons. It gives me the opportunity to play another year of college basketball and hopefully contribute to a team that showed it can be dangerous," Mbakwe said in a statement. “It also provides me with the opportunity to leave the university with a Master’s degree. That means a ton to me. Not many athletes have that chance to get multiple degrees during their stay and unfortunately it took an injury for me to have this opportunity but I am going to take full advantage of it. I am excited to get back on the court with my teammates.”
Said Gophers coach Tubby Smith: “He has obviously proven to be a dominant player in this league and I have no doubt that he will return to the form that made him that type of player. He will certainly be a welcomed addition to next year’s team.”
With his sophomore season just underway, the excitement surrounding recruit Tyus Jones is heating up all over again. Tuesday’s at the Apple Valley star guard's season opener against Eden Prairie -- during which he scored 37 points -- Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo and Ohio State assistant Jeff Boals were in the crowd, among others. I caught up with Debbie Jones, Tyus’ mother, to chat about the reignited hubbub.
Q Have you guys called a lot of schools already?
A We have spoken to a number of colleges. Minnesota, Michigan State, Ohio State, Duke, Arizona, Baylor, Iowa, Iowa State, Providence. I think that’s it.
Q So who is on the list right now?
A I don’t think he really has a list per se, all of the places that have contacted him we’ve looked at, checked out, talked with them and did some looking online. But I don’t think he has a list just yet. He probably had his favorites – but I couldn’t even give you what that list is. He’s gotten a lot of mail that comes into the high school for him from a lot other schools, your Florida, your Kansas, your Marquette, Stanford and a lot of those types of schools, but we haven’t spoken with any of them directly yet.
Q What’s going to factor into the final decision?
A I really think you’ve got to take absolutely everything into consideration. You look at the school, you look at the program, the coaching staff, the university as a whole, the system they run, the academics. I mean, I just think you have to take the whole entire system into play. Because all these big universities, they’re going to have a lot of similar things as far as academically, set up for kids and programs and things like that. So I wouldn’t say there is just one or two things, you really just have to take the situation as a whole and really look into things. And that’s why it’s so time-consuming.
Q What does he like about the ‘U'?
A Well, it’s close. That’s what I like about the U. We’ve been over there and on campus and stuff. You know, I think the people are good that they have in place over there. It’s a good university – they have good programs. I can’t say one thing over another thing that would stand out other than the closeness for me.
Q From Tyus’ tweets it seems like he’s pretty excited for the new high school season.
A He’s very excited to get it going. We had our first game on Tuesday. We led the whole way but Eden Prairie is just very disciplined and very well coached and they got us at the end.
Q Does Tyus take losses pretty hard?
A Definitely. Every game is so important. But it’s just ‘get back after it and hopefully play better.’ We play again on Saturday (against Tartan).
Q How cool is it for Tyus to have so many schools in the building, like on Tuesday? Tom Izzo came to see Tyus play in person – pretty neat.
A It was pretty cool. We have called and talked with him. He’s just a great guy. A great coach obviously, but just a great guy. They just kind of wave ‘Hi’ because you can’t really do any conversations and stuff like that.
Q Did you guys know they were coming?
A When we had talked with them they said they were going to try and make it because they didn’t have games those nights. Coach Smith and them – the U had a game, so they couldn’t be there. But yeah, we had an idea they were coming.
Q Tyus is just 15 – how’s he handling all this attention? Does he get into the recruiting stuff?
A He’s just fine – he understands it all and gets the whole thing, so he handles it very well. It’s great and the attention and all that is wonderful, but he just wants to win games. So that’s his main focus and he knows he’s just got to play and keep getting better. Obviously he’s into it, but he’s got his priorities straight. He knows what he’s got to do both on and off the court and in the classroom. But because it came at such an early age, it kind of gives us an opportunity to really check out the schools and the coaches and the whole program of a number of schools ahead of time. That part of it is kind of good in a way I guess so you can kind of check them all out fully rather than do it as a last minute or quick decision
Q How about you? Do you kind of feel like a manager already?
A It definitely could be a full-time job I think. I’m just fine. I think at times it’s overwhelming when you think of the whole idea of it. It’s pretty impressive to have coaches at the games. I never expected that at all. It’s all great. My oldest (Jadee) played because we went through some of this with him because he played Division I basketball, but we just didn’t go to this extent. And especially not so early.
Q Is it strange for the rest of the team to see all these big names checking out Tyus on the first game of the season?
A The whole crowd was pretty electric and there was a lot of buzz over who was in the crowd and stuff like that. Kids were nervous – our team is very young. So everything is really new to I think everyone. But they handle it pretty well. When we’ve had workouts in open gym and stuff, there were coaches in the gym at times they could be, so they’ve seen them before, too. But it’s a big deal, and they just kind of have to put that aside and go out and do what they have to do.
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