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
Come join me at noon to discuss the new additions to the team, the year ahead and whatever else strikes your fancy.
Two weeks ago, coach Richard Pitino and the University of Minnesota officially announced the hiring of Nate Pomeday as the new Director of Basketball Operations. (Josh Adel, the former DOBO, will remain on the staff in sort of a hybrid role.)
In Pomeday, the Gophers' young staff gets a coaching veteran that has worked at just about every level of the game: head coach (Calumet College (Ind.) of St. Joseph where he was, at the time of the hire, the youngest head coach in the country), assistant (most recently at Oregon State), DOBO (at Full Package Athletic's, Illinois' largest basketball club). He played Big Ten ball at Northwestern, graduating in 1999, and then spent four years working the Wildcats games as a color commentator for WGN.
Along the way, Pomeday became somewhat familiar with the current Gophers staff. Assistant Ben Johnson joined the Wildcats as a freshman the fall after Pomeday left. Pomeday crossed paths with assistant Kimani Young when the latter ran an organization that helped placed talented individuals at preparatory schools across the country. At the time, Pomeday was an assistant at Lake Forest Academy, a prep school in Illinois. This past year, the Wisconsin native -- don't fret, Pomeday grew up a fan of Marquette, not that other school -- got to know both Pitino and assistant Dan McHale a little on the recruiting trail.
While accepting his new role at Minnesota might look like a step back in title, Pomeday says his biggest drive is finding great people to surround himself with -- and he comes off very genuine when he talks about his excitement in joining the Gophers.
But first things first. After Pomeday spent ten days in his new role, he headed back to Corvallis, Ore. and his pregnant wife, Heidi. The couple's second child, another girl, three years younger than little Everly, is expected any day now.
"I'm surrounded by girls!" Pomeday said. "We have all the princess stuff, so we're prepared."
Soon, Pomeday and the rest of the basketball staff will be convening again in Dinkytown for the buildup to fall practices. In the meantime, I talked to Pomeday about his experience, the Big Ten and what's ahead for him.
How well did you know Pitino before taking this job?
A little bit. We had met each other on the recruiting circuit, just sort of rubbing elbows with coaches as you go. I had the chance to meet him one or two times, just brief conversations, saying hello. So I think he had an idea when my name was brought up that he knew who I was a little bit. But it's been a great process getting to know him more.
When did he call about hiring you?
I think it was the early July period. It happened fast. I was in a situation where I was looking for an opportunity and I just thought the opportunity with coach Pitino -- great style of play, very energetic fanbase, I'm very familiar with Minnesota basketball playing in the Big Ten and I've always thought it's going to be a great spot. So an opportunity to work with him and work with the staff was something that I really wanted to jump at.
Sounds like it wasn't a very hard decision for you.
I didn't think it was a hard decision at all. I thought it made a lot of sense. You can't worry about positions. The people you work with are what's important, and the program that you're trying to build and who you surround yourself with. I've known [Young and Johnson] for a while and that also made the opportunity a no-brainer.
What did you take away from your six years at Oregon State?
Six years you can really learn what's coming around the bend. I think with the experience I've had at Oregon State and even as a small college head coach, I think I've been afforded the opportunity to sort of see what could be coming around the corner and preparing for it. And also, I know what the asst coaches are going through, so I should be able to help take some things off their plate and fill in the holes and fill in any gaps that need to be filled in order to help coach Pitino run the program as best as he can.
What will your main duties be with Minnesota?
It's really all-encompassing. Josh Adel is very experienced in the operations standpoint, so I'm really leaning on him a lot. He has a good base knowledge of how things run at the university. I think I really need to be a point person for a lot of the internal/ external communications through the program and really help take a lot of things off coach Pitino's plate and the assistant coaches plates whether it's involving student athletes or involving the community or the athletic department and just sort of allow them to operate and take care of the more important pieces that they need to take care of.
Will you be working with Josh a lot?
I have a feeling he and I are going to be working together a ton and I'm looking forward to it. He's worked with some fantastic coaches and I have some good experience and I think together we can really grow.
How involved with scheduling will you be?
Yeah, I think scheduling the practices, scheduling workouts, game scheduling. A lot of that stuff is something that I'll be working hand-in-hand with Josh as well as well as coach Pitino. Game scheduling is a lot of work but in the end the coaches are making the decisions and we're really trying to just set the table up for them to be able to make the decisions they're most comfortable with.
You played in the Big Ten at Northwestern. Is getting back in a coaching role something you've thought a lot about?
I'm so excited to be back in the Big Ten. I was raised in Wisconsin, wife is from Philly, being back in the Midwest, we have a ton of friends. And it's exciting not only to be back in the Midwest but to be competing in the best conference in the country is phenomenal.
I'm really excited to get back in the Barn and play a game and just get back to all the other venues. I'm trying to think which other coaches are still around I think [Tom] Izzo [at Michigan State] is the only one. Coach Izzo is still there. It's going to be fun to get back there.
What do you remember about playing in the Barn?
The fans feeling like they're right on top of you. It's definitely a different feel from any other arena in the conference just because of the way the court is and the place is packed and I just remember having some great games there.
Have you kept up with the Big Ten since then?
Yep, it's easy to follow. Following Minnesota, a lot of the other teams. At Oregon State, we tended to recruit the Midwest quite a bit so we were recruiting against a lot of those teams, so I've paid attention. The Big Ten has just been great, it's been a great conference, top to bottom.
You majored in communications for your bachelor's degree. Are you interested in getting involved with that side of things again after your coaching career is done?
If I can be involved in any sort of radio, television or film after my coaching career, that would be fantastic. I was a color commentator for Northwestern basketball for WGN for four years and that was a lot of fun. I've always enjoyed the film and radio side of things with athletics and I think anybody that gets to do that is really lucky and is obviously very knowledgeable. In my coaching career, I've always pictured my end game is being a type of athletic direction. That's always been the end game for me but if ESPN wants to change that, that would be great.
What was that experience -- working as a color commentator -- like for you?
You got to see basketball from the other side. I saw Big Ten basketball as a player, and then I got to see it as a color commentator and at that time I was also coaching. Head coach at Calumet College, working Lake Forest Academy. So I was still in coaching, but getting to see the coaching from the sidelines and be right on the court during the games was a lot of fun. You got to watch teams prepare, you went on road trips with them. It wasn't a whole lot different from what I experienced as a player but it was neat to see it on the other side.
What are you most excited about in coming to Minnesota?
Just the opportunity to work with coach Pitino and the staff. Who you work with is just so important in your career an having the opportunity to keep building Minnesota basketball into what coach Pitino envisions for the future is exciting. I'm really excited about it. The feedback I got when it finally became public was incredible and people in the college basketball business were very supportive in the press in a way which was really humbling for me. I'm really thankful to coach Pitino and all the administration at Minnesota and the assistant coaches as well.
You mentioned Pitino's style of play earlier. Is that something that's particularly attractive to you?
He coaches an aggressive style of defense, speeds up the ball, create turnovers, get deflections. It's an energy-effort type of game and that's something that just naturally as a coach, something that I am attracted to.
Have you been around the players much yet?
I spent 10 days there with the guys before they finished up summer school. It's a great group of guys. You can tell their chemistry is really, really good. They're strong. They're much faster than I remember. Mo Walker was a kid at Oregon State that we had looked at for a while and he's a third of himself when he was at Mother Teresa [Catholic secondary school] in Canada. But that's a snapshot of what coach Pitino wants from all of his guys. He wants them to be lean, strong and fast. And that's the style of ball that they're going to play -- that we're going to play. It's 'we' -- it's really exciting to say 'we.'
A summer ago, Elliott Eliason was at a crossroads.
The University of Minnesota center, coming off a season in which he played just 13.7 minutes a game, was unsure of where he fit in new coach Richard Pitino's system. Eliason was unproven and overweight. Outside of the program, conversations about the Gophers dual centers -- he and Mo Walker -- focused on just how much of a liability that position could be.
Twelve months later, things are different. Eliason, who dropped 20 pounds before the season started, had a standout defensive year, compiling 244 rebounds and 72 blocks while platooning with Walker to create a formidable twosome at the five-spot. Heading into the fall, the pair are established seniors, each with very different but equally promising skill sets that could make the competition for starter a fierce one. The summer, for both players, was about tweaking and getting stronger.
"It's a lot different because obviously, we kind of know what to expect from the coaching staff this year," he said. "We have a clear vision."
I caught up with Eliason just before he headed back to his hometown, Chadron, Neb., to chat about how things have gone since the offseason began.
What are you focusing on the most this summer? You lost all that weight last year. Are you happy with where you are?
Definitely. I'm at a place that [the coaching staff is] comfortable with me at so now it's more about body fat percentage, trying to focus in on strength goals. We're doing a lot more skill work this summer. On the court, I'm doing a lot of shooting jump shots and free throws, and working on some back-to-the-basket moves. I've been working with our [coaches] to just kind of be strong with the ball so I'll be able to make a better back-to-the-basket move. I really want to improve my free-throw percentages [which was 56.5 percet last season].
In terms of changing your body fat, what are you tweaking about what you were already doing?
It was a lot of diet stuff. Obviously, I'm doing a lot of running. But also, it's just cutting things out that seemed pretty normal but you don't really need them anymore. I don't eat as many carbohydrates anymore. I'm never going to be a guy that's four percent body fat or really low, but it's definitely gotten below what it was before -- I think they're happy with what I've done this summer.
Are you doing a lot more lifting this summer as well?
Yes. I don't have to worry about losing weight, I'm just worrying about getting stronger. So because of that, I think I've seen a lot more improvement than I did the year before. [Strength and Conditioning] coach [Shaun] Brown is good at tweaking things when he sees something's not working for you. Different things don't work the same for different guys. A lot of the guys have gotten a lot stronger over a pretty short period of time. I think it will be good to have those couple other months when we get back to kind of finish out that program and then get started with practices.
Has coach Richard Pitino had a different approach with you guys this year in summer workouts now that he spent so much time implementing his new system last year?
Last year he was always at everything. I think it's because he wanted to show he was the new coach, he wanted to be involved with everything. But we didn't really get to know the styles or even the personalities of all our assistant coaches. I think when we turned in our offseason reviews that showed. We talked about it at the end of the season. He really wants us to build those relationships because he knows how important they are that we trust and have a good relationship with all the coaching staff, not just him. So he gave, in individual instruction, those guys a lot of responsibility and they basically ran the show this summer. With him, when we all got together he would talk to us or he'd be hanging out in the weight room but he wouldn't be really leading the session. I think he wanted to take a step back and kind of observe the workouts instead of being in the middle of them.
Have you thought about your goals for yourself or for the team next year yet?
We'll get together when we come back [from back] and talk and set those goals in stone then. And individually, we'll get together with the coaches and come up with goals for ourselves. I have some ideas but I need to make sure we're on the same page first.
What about in terms of your defensive rebounding potential. Have you thought about potentially leading the Big Ten in that category?
I know I was on track to last year, starting off the season so well. And the first half of Big Ten, defensive rebounding I was right there. I think I stayed top five the whole year. And blocked shots were up there too. It's kind of the goal. It's a lofty goal especially with so many talented bigs in the league ... that's kind of the thought process, to be there or right there.
Offensively, you were less consistent last year after getting off to a strong start. Did you ever feel like you were in a rut or was your mindset changing as you realized your value on the defensive end more?
At times I felt like I was in a rut. I just struggled to score at times. But the strategy was a little different, there weren't as many opportunities sometimes. Early season, there were a lot more minutes. Just different factors made it happen. Other times, it was just that's what they wanted me to do, play defense and go get a bunch of rebounds. That's what I do best. But obviously, I think it's going to take more of a scoring threat out of me to consistently stay on the floor. Mo came on really strong last year. He was a great scoring threat down low and it was huge for us.
Near the end of the season last year, Pitino talked a lot about toughness, both physically and mentally and sited the team's lack of it as the base for a few key losses, including the second-round game vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament. How much have you guys as players thought about that? We've been trying to work on that through competition more than anything. We'll have competitions against each other in the weight room or playing around in the gym. It's always for something. Just to ensure that open gym doesn't become not very competitive.The thought is to be really competitive all the time. Always scrapping kind of helps to get into a routine that you're always going to be that way. It's tough. It's something you've got to do all the time.
Have the pickup games gotten pretty intense?
Things have been getting pretty heated... it's good to get us back in the flow.
Just a lot of bumps and bruises. I don't think we've had a broken nose yet, thank goodness. But there was definitely a lot of competition and bad feelings sometimes, but it's probably for the best.
What does the winning team get?
The loser has to run or do more reps in the weight room; the captains will [hold the players accountable] there. If not that, it's just for pride, because you don't want to hear DeAndre [Mathieu] or someone giving you smack for the next couple of days.
This is your last year here, your fifth since you redshirted. Your collegiate career is almost over! Have you started to get sentimental at all yet?
I haven't yet but I'm sure once the fall rolls around and you start gearing up and everyone starts talking about the season, it will probably become that way. Right now, summer, it still seems far enough away, it's not real yet. But it's coming and it's coming fast.
What will you do with your free time back in Chadron on your break?
Well, I'll definitely take a little relaxation time. And then I'll beat up on my brother [Spencer, who will be playing at North Dakota State in the fall] in the gym, try to make him better, and try to get better myself.
University of Minnesota strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown jokes that the Gophers coaching staff keeps a daily lottery on how much weight JUCO transfer Carlos Morris has added.
As the players headed home for late summer break this weekend, the junior-to-be has put on a full 20 pounds since arriving on campus in May. Brown asked the lanky Morris to consume six meals a day, plus snacks since he showed up, in order to build mass quickly and ease him to a Big Ten-ready playing weight.
The staff is pleased with Morris' progress thus far.
"He's a real competitor," Brown said. "He's a real focus kid. He's very coachable."
Morris' balanced game and defensive ability probably keeps him as the favorite to replace the graduated Austin Hollins at small forward, although sophomore Daquein McNeil will likely give him a good run. But Morris promises to bring a much different look to the position than the Gophers had a year ago. The Florida native is not the shooter that Hollins was, but is a much better ball handling and penetrator than his former counterpart.
"You're going to be excited to watch him," Brown said. "It's a different threat, which means he has to be more physical."
That is where the weight gain comes in. Morris has done such a good job on his own -- Brown set the goal of 3/4 of a pound per week -- that midway though the summer the strength and conditioning coach stopped making him send pictures of every bite, which Morris did at the outset. But the staff still wants him to continue to bulk up throughout his two remaining years of eligibility. Currently, he's at 181 pounds, still relatively thin for his 6-foot-5 frame. If he ever gains two pounds and then loses it by the next weigh in, Brown said, the whole team is punished with running. Ultimately, the staff hopes Morris will build to about 195 pounds, Brown said, a size that would give him a good chance of continuing his playing career after college.
"That's the biggest thing he's got to do, Brown said. "If he can do that and work on his shot, then the kid is going to be special."
Freshman, mid-major transfers and JUCOs are far from sure things, University of Minnesota strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown knows.
So for Brown, the quick transitions of this year's newcomers are enough to foster some ribbing.
"For how pieced together this class was, I say [to the assistant coaches], 'Coach, I'm not worried about anything," Brown said with a chuckle. "You got these guys here -- and now you've got time to recruit. [The] 2015 [class] will be a piece of cake."
Of course, finding and signing good players, especially at a place like Minnesota which hasn't consistently competed in the Big Ten or made the NCAA tournament in recent years, always takes plenty of traveling, time and a strong vision. But considering head coach Richard Pitino and his staff managed to secure this six-player class for the fall -- having begun the recruiting process only seven months before the early signing period -- Brown has ample confidence in the future.
International recruits Bakary Konate and Gaston Diediou both won't be on campus until the Gophers resume practice in the fall. But JUCO Carlos Morris, transfer Zach Lofton and true freshmen Nate Mason and Josh Martin have all quickly accelerated, Brown said.
"They're home runs," he said of the newcomers, who have exceeded his expectations in terms of immediate integration to a high-major program.
Brown said the biggest challenge for newcomers at this level is getting them adjusted to high-major Division I life and the coaches' expectations. While Lofton, whom Pitino has complimented for his "NBA-ready body," has the luxury of a redshirt year to get prepared for the Big Ten, in Brown's mind that only means more time to work. When the strength and conditioning coach informed the transfer the two of them would be working out together daily, regardless of what the team is doing, Lofton's mouth gaped momentarily. In general, Brown said, it's important for the newcomers to learn early on that the culture at Minnesota is probably very different from the one they left. There is a strict schedule of tutoring, practices, workouts and classes necessary to being a successful student athlete. If a workout or practice is at 2 p.m., Brown wants players should be taped and with their shoes tied by 1:45.
"It's just getting them to become almost robots with that stuff," Brown said. "You can't function as a team until they learn those habits."
So far, Brown is pleased with what he's seen. Lofton is steadily progressing, Martin and Morris have each put on needed bulk, with the latter tipping the scales at 20 added pounds since he arrived in May. Mason has caught on quickly with the veteran guards already on the roster.
"They're different kids," Brown said. "They're what we needed in a lot of ways."
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