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
Center Elliott Eliason and guard Malik Smith are both expected to play on Tuesday against South Dakota State, Gophers coach Richard Pitino said on Monday morning's conference call with the media.
Both players practiced on Sunday after injuring their left ankles previously -- Eliason on Thursday and Smith on Friday -- sprains that limited them in Saturday's game against New Orleans. Smith, whom Pitino had said could barely walk that morning, didn't play at all, while Eliason played just four minutes in the first half before hobbling off.
After the game, Pitino was optimistic for Eliason's immediate return, but sounded much more reserved about Smith's status, calling his injury "worse." After practice, however, Pitino felt each had taken a notable step.
"They both seemed fine so we expect them both to play tomorrow," Pitino said. "Elliott was moving well. Malik was hobbling a little bit but once he got loose, he looked much better."
Whether Eliason immediately takes back his starting spot from Mo Walker -- who filled in with 11 points and eight rebounds on Saturday -- is a different story.
"I'm not really sure, to be honest with you," Pitino said. "I haven't made my decision yet, we're going to think about it."
Saturday was Walker's first career start, and he continued to show improvement after returning from a six-game suspension in the Gophers' second game of the Maui Invitational, against Arkansas. On Saturday, Walker played just 23 minutes after picking up his fourth foul early in the second half.
Read my full game story on the Gophers' 80-65 win over New Orleans here
Just healthy, the Gophers have more injuries to deal with.
In the two practices leading up to Saturday's win over New Orleans, Center Elliott Eliason and guard Malik Smith each sprained their left ankles, keeping the latter from entering the game and limiting the former to just four minutes.
Mo Walker started in Eliason's place for the first time this year, and responded, finishing with 11 points and eight rebounds, although he sat for most of the second half with four fouls.
Coach Richard Pitino said afterward that he "hopes" Eliason will be available to play on Tuesday in the Gophers' game against South Dakota State, but is more reserved about Smith's sprain.
After hurt it on Friday (Eliason tweaked his on Thursday), Smith actually re-entered practice and continued to play on it, but when he arrived at Williams Arena today, he could barely walk. Still, Pitino wasn't sure he couldn't play, remembering a time last year when he was coaching Smith at Florida International and the guard injured his back at Stetson in warmups.
"I said 'What is wrong with you?' And he said 'I can’t walk,'" Pitino remembered. "So I subbed him in … he played like 35 minutes, he had like 32 points (he played 30 minutes and had 29 points in reality) and I said ‘You’re not Willis Reed (who famously played hurt for the New York Knicks in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals) – stop doing that.’ So I thought he was doing that a little bit but he really wasn’t – he was pretty banged up. His seems worse than Elliott’s, so I hope he comes back, just rest is the biggest thing."
Eliason, meanwhile, had told Pitino he thought he was "65-70 percent" before the game, but it was pretty clear once he entered that he was not functioning at a high level. The center played for four minutes in the first half -- getting a pair of blocks -- and left, hobbling.
"He just looked like he was really hurting," Pitino said. "I told him during a timeout – 'You alright man?' He said "Ahhh …" They want to play, they want to fight through the injury. I just made a decision we’ve got to get some rest for those guys."
Other notes from the 80-65 victory:
Today's game vs. New Orleans tips at 2 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN3. Listen on the radio with 1500-a.m.
After the biggest stretch of the season, the Gophers move from the Maui Invitational and Florida State to a stretch that features just three games in 21 days, starting today at Williams Arena.
The slate, which begins with New Orleans today, superficially looks like the easiest stretch of the year this far, with games against South Dakota State and Nebraska-Omaha after matchups against the likes of Syracuse and FSU.
But the key, coach Richard Pitino said, will be for the team to remain focused in the midst of such a flimsy schedule.
“We’re kind of approaching – and I know it sounds funny – a difficult time for us over the next month, just because there are a lot of challenges,” Pitino said. “You have an emotional game against Florida State at home, certainly a very good opponent, great program. And then you’ve got finals coming up, you’ve got a long time between each game, no big name opponents, doesn’t mean we can’t lose these games, and certainly can. But mentally, more than anything, we’ve got to have the right mindset going in to tomorrow as well as for the rest of the month.
“We could certainly lose to anybody, I think we showed that with Chaminade, we were down 9 at the half.”
The Gophers were able to maintain focus in similar situations this year, like against Wofford with Maui on the horizon, and – eventually – against Chaminade despite the disappointment of playing in the 7th/8th place game. But this, Pitino said, is a little different because the Gophers just experienced the season’s current high.
“People are pumping you up,” the coach said. “When they see the players on campus, I’m sure they’re giving them a little bit more love than what they normally get. We’ve got to embrace the underdog mentality, we cannot have any ego whatever.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster a little bit, you go from Florida State, big game and now you come home and I think it’s big for us to kind of keep that kind of humble and hungry mentality and just focus on the overall goal.”
Pitino reiterated that point in the postgame edit, which the team does after every game.
They call it “good and bad.”
After Tuesday’s game, Pitino and the rest of the staff picked out 25 “bad” – highlighted by an ugly shot Malik Smith took in the first half – and 22 “good” clips.
“That’s a lot, certainly – 25 things you can learn from and we probably took a couple off,” Pitino said. “We could show them 30-35 things. We have by no means arrived. We had a good win, we did some very good things against Florida State, but we definitely have a lot to improve on as well.”
Maverick Ahanmisi was looking almost as good as new before practice on Friday after leaving Tuesday's game against Florida State midway through the second half when he chipped a front tooth.
By Friday, that tooth had been replace and his smile mended, although Ahanmisi still sported a black right eye from the incident.
"They put a new tooth in, so it’s like brand new," Ahanmisi said.
The guard sustained the injury when his head was banged into the floor as he dove for a loose ball.
"When I hit the ground, I felt my tooth shoot to the back of my mouth," Ahanmisi said. "So I just laid there. I felt a bunch of fragments of my tooth in there so I just laid on the ground like ‘This can’t be happening right now.’"
Gophers coach Richard Pitino lauded the play by Ahanmisi, which came when Florida State was within eight points of Minnesota.
"it could have turned into a six-point game and Mav dove and had his chipped tooth because of it," Pitino said. "He saved us a basket, that was about to be a layup."
Joey King said his jaw is "100 percent back to normal" after the power forward fractured it in the game against Coastal Carolina.
King, who missed the Wofford game with the injury but has played since said that the worst part of playing with the injury was then plane ride to Maui, when his face was very swollen. He appeared to reaggrevate the injury against Syracuse, when he was fouled hard and hit the ground.
"I do my best to block it out," he said. "Worst things have happened, so hitting the floor, it’s not a big deal to me."
The Gophers’ activity on the court isn’t the only thing that’s undergone a massive change from a year ago.
This year, the sideline is getting some good exercise as well.
Watching new coach Richard Pitino’s personal coaching style couldn’t be more different from that of Tubby Smith, who stayed mostly reserved, a year ago.
Smith made use of the stool each coach has available on the raised court just in front of their benches, often taking a seat and not getting up for much, especially if the Gophers weren’t playing very well.
For Pitino, the stool is more like an obstacle on an ever changing course – something not to trip over. (After the first exhibition game, Pitino noted it was something he had to get used to – “That stool, it was like everywhere I turned, it was in my way, it was like following me,” he said with a laugh.)
Instead, PItino strolls the floor so much that at times he threatens to get in the game himself. On Tuesday, after some interesting calls by the officials, the Minnesota coach flung his jacket and tie at the bench in a fit of rage. When the Gophers are not playing well, Pitino is living and dying with every defensive possession on the sideline. When the Gophers are playing well, Pitino is still living and dying with every defensive possession. From tip-off to final buzzer, the coach doesn’t stop moving.
“He’s fiery man, I love playing for him,” DeAndre Mathieu said after the Gophers win on Tuesday. “His style of play and his intensity just keeps you going, makes you want to play hard … He’s fiery all the time. Even with the jacket on, the tie on, he’s a competitor.”
A coaching change usually brings a lot of adjustments for a team. There are new plays, a new system and new in-game allowances (how tight a script vs. how much freedom to improvise). But the first adjustment for a team is a new personal coaching style – how that new person teaches, how he communicates, what he expects.
With Pitino, the Gophers have found a lot of changes. Unlike Smith, Pitino is very vocal about exactly which things his players need to work on – and even outlines them in a blog he writes for the Gophers’ website. He doesn’t pull punches with them, or with the media. At the same time, through nine games that have already featured some pretty significant ups and downs, the coach has maintained a steady message about his players. He never takes a dig at someone, and many times will defend them after the media thinks they’ve had a bad night (often saying that he doesn’t worry about shots falling or offensive production all the time if a player is working hard on defense and doing the little things).
“We love it,” Austin Hollins said. “He’s real interactive in practice. When we’re doing good he praises us and when we’re doing bad, he doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He’s going to come in and tell you you need to fix it and in the end it makes us better as players.
“I think [my teammates] don’t mind bluntness because he balances it out when they’re doing the right thing. So they appreciate him telling him what they need to hear. He doesn’t sugarcoat it, so you know exactly what you’re doing wrong and you know how to fix it, and when you do it right, he’ll tell you good job.”
With the Gophers apparently crystal clear about their roles, many of them have looked surprisingly more confident and efficient and aggressive than a year ago. Perhaps part of the intensity carries over from the sideline, where Pitino starts the engine.
“We know what he wants from us from us, and that’s good, we have a good mutual relationship,” Andre Hollins said. “This is fun.”
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