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
A few weeks ago, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino shook his head, frustrated with the team's rebounding effort.
He wanted to avoid putting his players through basic box-out drills if he could, he warned, but he would do it if he had to.
On Christmas Day, Pitino implemented the drills for the first time since preseason practices.
With just one game between the Gophers and the hearty Big Ten schedule, Minnesota's biggest weakness is still rebounding, and Pitino has zoned in on that aspect in full force, even if it means reinstating menial box-out drills.
"You do that stuff in the preseason," Pitino said. "I like to do them in the preseason. But my big thing [in the regular season] is let's focus on the next opponent, let's focus on ourselves ... When you're on the court during the season, that time is valuable, you don't want to waste any time because the most important thing in my opinion is being prepared but also being well-rested.
"But we did [box out drills] yesterday, we'll continue to do a little bit today because that message is not sinking in well enough."
Pitino pointed to backup center Elliott Eliason as the only player he's pleased with when it comes to his efforts on the glass. Eliason, who is averaging 5.2 points and 4.1 rebounds in 15.2 minutes a game, is the only real natural rebounder on the team. Last season, Eliason started for most of the year and grabbed 24.7 percent of available rebounds according to kenpom.com, 39th best in the nation. This year, starting center Mo Walker has been the best defensive rebounder statistically, pulling down 22.4 percent of available boards, 97th best nationally, but is posting an average of just 5.5 rebounds a game.
The Gophers are one of just three Big Ten teams to have four guards averaging 2.8 rebounds or more, but besides Walker and Eliason, no one else on the team is grabbing more than 3.8 a game.
All the way around, it isn't enough. Minnesota is ranked second-to-last in the Big Ten with a .662 defensive rebounding percentage.
"We chase down rebounds pretty well but it all comes down to the block outs," said forward Joey King, who is averaging 3.8 rebounds a game as the starting power forward. "That's where we let rebounding get away from us a little bit. So its important we make a hit first before we go chase it down."
That's where the new drills come in. Pitino likes to compare rebounding to a car crash: when the shot goes up, players should crash into each other to fight for good positioning to grab it.
"I mean, there are fender benders going on right now," the coach said. "There are no car crashes."
He added: "I'm not happy with any of them ... I think we are getting better, but that's an issue and I don't like where it stands right now, top to bottom."
The coach has insisted his team has the ability to improve, despite the personnel appearing to be not very conducive to becoming a much better rebounding team. Step one is to get physical, he said. Until then, players can expect box out drills to become a regular part of practice.
"Come Purdue, you better be ready for that," Pitino said. "That's something we're not doing real well and that's going to be a main focal point."
** Pitino said Andre Hollins (turf toe) practiced yesterday and should be good to go on Saturday after two days off for Christmas.
** Asked to name a non-conference MVP, Pitino pointed to DeAndre Mathieu who is averaging 9.4 points and 6.3 assists per game. "Six assists is good enough for me," he said. Pitino also noted that Joey King (9.9 points, 3.8 assists) could be on that list as well.
Merry Christmas, everyone. Hope everyone has had a nice little holiday season and lots of good food, no matter what you celebrate.
Minnesota's break was a short one this year with the last non-conference game -- vs. UNC Wilmington -- just around the corner, on December 27th. Then it's the conference schedule, starting with a pair of road games at Purdue and Maryland.
In the meantime, here's what the Gophers are hoping Santa Claus left them ...
Some power forward depth. OK, so the fat man probably didn't drop a brawny, imposing big man on the steps of Williams Arena, seeing as how it'd be against NCAA rules to put another guy on scholarship anyway -- but the Gophers would love to see improvement from every player they do have in the rotation. Joey King is playing about as well as he's capable of, and that's huge. But Charles Buggs needs to improve defensively, Bakary Konate (who is really a center but will be used at the 4 at times) needs to get better with his hands. International newbie Gaston Diedhiou has to get much, much better all-around before he even steps on the court, but boy could coach Richard Pitino use him.
Better rebounding skills. There aren't many natural rebounders on this team. Elliott Eliason might be the only one. The guards have actually been pretty good in picking up their share, but none of them can reasonably be expected to average more than four rebounds a game. King and Mo Walker and Konate and Buggs must get better or the Gophers will find that aspect their Achilles heel in the conference slate.
A healthy Andre Hollins. It's just turf toe, but we've seen injuries linger with Hollins, who seemed a bit off in Minnesota's 86-76 win over Furman, in which he went 0-for-4 from three-point range. Pitino said afterward that he thought it was bad enough that he was worried the senior wouldn't be able to play. So now with the schedule ramping up, Minnesota is hoping Santa delivered a little extra healing power to one of their best guards.
Super glue for players' fingers. The Gophers likely won't continue to average 12.3 steals a game come Big Ten contests, and if Minnesota falls off in that strength, the 14 turnovers a game -- second worst in the Big Ten -- could come back to bite them. As it is, the Gophers have the best turnover margin in the league. And some of the turnover-proneness is certainly a somewhat normal side effect of the pressing style of the defense. But think of how much of a strength their high-intensity defense would be if the Gophers could cut down on the miscues a bit.
More luck on the road. A year ago, Minnesota managed to seize just two wins on the road in the conference schedule and neither of them very impressive -- at Penn State and at Northwestern. Some of those seven games lost were the result of Minnestoa simply getting beat. Sometimes, it was the case of a couple balls rolling the wrong way. Ultimately, the lack of a road resume was one of the major reasons the Gophers missed the NCAA tournament. The Gophers have shown they're capable of holding serve pretty well on their home court. But if they're going to take the next step, they'll have to pick up a couple more road wins too.
When Minnesota took the court vs. Furman on Monday night, the Gophers were ranked No. 1 in the nation in assists per game. They were ranked second nationally in steals. They were third in turnover margin. The last three games? They had them by an average of 33 points.
So you can imagine the players' confusion when coach Richard Pitino was getting after them -- hard -- just one day earlier in practice.
"They were looking at me funny," the coach said. "Like 'Why is this guy on us?'"
Now, he says, they know.
After narrowly avoiding the fate that so many Big Ten teams have encountered this fall, the Gophers kept themselves off the list of conference teams downed at home in a guarantee game but received a lesson in that such lofty statistics don't translate to every game. When they don't, teams have to gut it out.
"I don't know that I'm happy but it was good that we experienced it," said an upbeat Pitino after the 86-76 win that felt much closer than that.
"We are so good statistically right now and I don't think that's necessarily a good thing for our team ... I thought those last couple games, we were playing for assists. And we were playing for steals. I said guys, I like the fact that you're doing those things but you've got to play the game."
Pitino had similar words for his point guard. In the last 10 conference games, DeAndre Mathieu had amassed a stellar 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, which led the Big Ten. In the meantime, he stopped searching for his shot as much and started actually hunting assists, the coach thought, prompting him to call him Rajon Rondo after the Dallas Mavericks' point guard.
"I don't understand your message," Mathieu told Pitino in response to his coach asking him to please play the game.
Pitino's response was clear on Monday.
"If you don't play what's given to you there may be days where you don't get 9, 10 assists and you've got to go get 20 points," Pitino said.
In the first half, nothing was coming easily for Mathieu, who went 2-for-7 from the field with four assists but also four turnovers. In the second, the floor general calmed down, finishing with 16 points and gathering three more assists and just one more turnover and a pair of big shots down the stretch to help seal the victory.
"I think he now realizes that," Pitino said of Mathieu. "The second half he did that."
In the locker room Mathieu shook his head. He knew how close the Gophers were to losing a game that they couldn't. The turnover ratio wasn't pretty in this one -- Minnesota had just 17 assists, its fewest in six games while amassing 14 turnovers. They had just one more steal than miscue. But the Gophers found a way to play what they were given at the end, and get it done.
"We definitely needed this to kind of bring us back down," Mathieu said. "Let us know that we can still be beat any day. I think that was perfect timing."
Read my full game story on tonight's 86-76 Minnesota win over Furman here.
Three quick observations:
Blessing in disguise? The attitude in the locker room postgame was hardly defeated. It was markedly upbeat, same with coach Richard Pitino in the postgame press conference. Everyone echoed the same mantra: "We needed this." The Gophers had been blowing out teams for six straight contests. It was getting boring. It would be imaginable if most any team in their position looked at the statistics -- finding themselves No. 1 in assists and top five in steals -- and start to think its above the fray that is surrounding the Big Ten right now. Tonight was a lessen in humility. The Gophers' defense can be beat. The Gophers can be stunned. It wasn't the greatest performance but just like these last few wins, not too much can be taken from one game, one very hot shooting team and a little off defense. If Minnesota is smart, it will learn from this one.
Nate Mason is the real deal. When was the last time the Gophers had a freshman who could step up and calmly nail three-pointers down the stretch, who has been as consistently good as Mason has been -- to such an extent that after his 15-point, six-steal game on Friday, we didn't even talk about him in the postgame conference. Minnesota has something special on its hands and the rest of the Big Ten doesn't even know about it yet.
May be some time before we see Gaston Diedhiou. With the Gophers straining to simply win the game on Monday, there was no chance for Pitino to insert the newest scholarship member of the team, even if he wanted to. But in giving us the evaluation he promised after the game, the coach made it clear that he probably won't be throwing Diedhiou in any time soon, garbage minutes or not. "We were too consumed with getting Gas in the mix," Pitino said. "He has no idea what he's doing. Nor should he. It's not like an NBA player was traded from the Rockets to the Timberwolves and he knows the game, he understands terminology. He has no idea what he's doing, and it's not his fault ... Gas is not in a position to succeed right now. So I think he's going to be a very, very good player. But he doesn't need games. The natural thought is get him in there, get him feeling good. No, that's not the answer. He needs practice."
Andre Hollins not at 100 percent. The senior guard is battling a case of turf toe on his left foot, sustained after the win vs. Seattle on Friday. Hollins, who didn't practice at all on Saturday or Sunday, played 25 minutes due to foul trouble but went just 3-for-7 from the field.
"I was kind of worried that he wasn't going to play to be honest," Pitino said.
Tonight's game vs. Furman tips at 7 p.m. Watch on ESPN3 (free for subscribers) or listen live on 1500-a.m.
I'll be on KFAN talking Minnesota and Big Ten hoops Dave Sinykin at 5:55 p.m.
When Mike Lukashewich pulled off his Appleton North jersey for the last time, he had no intentions of putting a new one on.
The 6-foot-1 guard was done with his basketball career, he thought. A few offers from Division II and Division III schools weren't enticing enough to battle with something he valued more: his studies.
But after the Wisconsin native got into the University of Minnesota and began his freshman year in a sports management program, his couldn't help but be curious when the Gophers' hosted a walk-on tryout at the beginning of October.
He had been working out on his own all summer -- he was still in great shape. Why not? he thought.
"If it worked out, I said, it worked out," Lukashewich said on Friday. "And if they didn't need me, it was totally OK."
His tryout came and went. The Gophers plucked 5-foot-10 guard Darin Haugh -- who is not eligible this year due to NCAA transfer rules -- and no one else. But as the roster grew thinner -- after Minnesota kicked Zach Lofton off the team, guard Daquein McNeil was arrested for assault and freshman forward Josh Martin transferred -- Lukashewich got a phone call the week before Christmas break.
At the request of coach Richard Pitino, he came in, then, to practice with the team and see the flow of everything. After a couple of practices, the coach had made his decision: he wanted Lukashewich to join the team as its second walk-on.
"I'm excited," said Lukashewich, who used the word "thankful" three times in our short conversation. "I'm thankful for the opportunity and all these guys have helped me a lot. So it's been an easy transition.
"It's been a learning experience for sure. My teammates are helping me out a ton with drills and everything and especially during the game, they help me out with flow stuff, so they've been a tremendous help to me."
Unlike Haugh, Lukashewich was available to help right away. And he did, just over 24 hours after Minnesota announced him along with international big man Gaston Diedhiou -- who will be on scholarship -- as roster additions.
Lukashewich got a minute of action in the first half of a blowout over Seattle on Friday, and almost immediately tipped a three-pointer, causing the Barn to go nuts.
Apparently, that's exactly what the Gophers are expecting from a player with a long arms and one who says he really likes defense.
Pitino had already taken to calling him Hakim Warrick after the former Syracuse player who blocked a potential game-tying three-pointer in the waning seconds of the 2003 National Championship game vs. Kansas.
"He contests shots great," Pitino said. "We were like laughing about it ... and legitimately he got one. He's got long arms. I'm excited about him. I really am."
Lukashewich played a total of four minutes on Friday, getting back in in the second half. He didn't attempt a shot and kept the block as his sole statistic on his first boxscore line.
"I was nervous at first," he said. "But I tried to get the jitters out and play my game. I'm a contributor and I just want to do for the team [whatever they want him to do] and not necessarily shoot the ball."
The two extra players make a big difference in practice, the players said. With all the roster attrition, wing Carlos Morris was left without a substitute in practices that are as fast-paced and intense as games, players say.
"Practice was getting pretty tough," point guard DeAndre Mathieu said. "We try to simulate the game in practice by being uptempo and guys are just getting wore out, so it's definitely going to be good to have some subs."
Now, the Gophers are up to 14 players on the roster -- three of them walk-ons -- although McNeil remains suspended indefinitely. After feeling shorthanded for weeks, Pitino joked that now Minnesota had an overflow.
"It was funny because we didn't have any players and now it's like we've got too many again," he said. "So maybe I'll run somebody off, I don't know."
Three things to know tonight:
1. Furman is ranked 297th on kenpom.com and doesn't have many strengths worth pointing out save a decent ability to get to the line and junior guard Stephen Croone (18.1 points per game). If Minnesota takes care of business, it should be a blowout.
2. Look for Gaston Diedhiou again. The international big man joined the team last Thursday but didn't play Friday because he hadn't practiced at all. Now, he's got at least two practices under his belt, so if the score gets pushed out, Pitino could give him some garbage minutes.
3. Nate Mason earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors today for a stellar 15-point, six-steal performance on Friday that we barely talked about because, well, we're getting used to this kid being so good. He's got a couple more games until the conference season begins to get even better. He's going to be fun to watch this year.
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