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 conversation with Mo Walker

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: September 9, 2014 - 10:34 AM

A year and a half ago, Mo Walker was an overweight and little-used Gophers center with clear potential but not much to show for it.

Now, he's one of four critical seniors heading into the 2014-15 season, and one who stunned the Big Ten by -- along with big man Elliott Eliason -- stepping into the gap left by Trevor Mbakwe and had a highly productive season. He averaged 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds and seemed to become more effective as a post scorer each game. 

To take the next step this season, the NIT Champion Gophers will need Walker to continue the upward trend. 

I caught up with him to reminisce a little about last season and look ahead to this year:

Are you getting anxious for the new season to start?
I'm excited for the next season, just excited to get back to working out with the team again and getting with the new guys and all that stuff.
When I was home, I took some time to spend with my family and see my friends and stuff, but I knew we were going to get right into it so I did some stuff myself so it wouldn't be as much of a grind when I came back.

Did anyone treat you differently back in Scarborough after that year you had last season?
For some of my friends, it was their first time seeing me in a long time since I lost that weight. So lots of comments and compliments about how I look and my body and whatnot. But my friends and family aren't going to treat me differently, win or lose, good game or bad game.

What did they say to you about your new physique?
My family, they were pretty shocked. My mom was really happy. My grandma would always just look at me and smile and always tell me that I look good. My friends ask me questions like what did I do, how did I do it?

Did you go home at all last year?
Only for six days, so I wasn't home for long at all and I didn't really get to spend much time with anybody.

What have you been working on this summer?
I'm a lot more focused on my skill development this summer. Last summer was more about my body, losing weight, getting to that weight that I used to play at. I feel like this summer I'm at the right weight. I just need to work on my skills, getting better on the court. I also need to get stronger. Weight's not really a concern, so I can spend more time on the court instead of on the treadmill or in the weight room.

Do you feel like you've gotten a lot stronger?
Yeah, my weights have definitely increased with my lifts. Coach Brown has done a really good job. Today was pretty much our first lift back and I feel like I'm close to where I should be and I feel good. Last year at this time, I couldn't do a chinup. Now I can do 10 chinups.

Have your weights increased a lot?
Not sure exact numbers. But I remember last year for me to push 225, once, nothing. I can rip off reps of that now. So it feels like a big increase.

What about on the court? What are you focusing on?
Just some go-to post moves. Being more conscious of my hands on the ball. Coach Pitino always complains about me getting the ball slapped out of my hands and stuff like that. So I'm just trying to work on squeezing the ball tight and not losing it.

Does coach Richard Pitino put you through any drills for that?
Definitely, when we do individual workouts and we do post moves, he'll have a manager just trying to strip us or smack the ball away. When we try to finish, we try to finish through contact with pads on and stuff like that. A lot of heavy ball stuff, too, that forces us to squeeze the ball when we pick it up because it's so heavy.

Do you feel like its mostly a mental thing?
I definitely think so. I feel like I'm a pretty strong guy and I think I have pretty good hands. But when it comes to in the moment and making my move, I just forget to squeeze the ball pretty much and it gets smacked out of my hands.

Do you see yourself as having a bigger leadership role this year as well?
I think I might be the oldest one on the team. Losing Austin Hollins, he was pretty much our go-to guy when it came to leadership. I feel like I'm a pretty good influence on the guys and I can be pretty vocal -- more behind the scenes than in the spotlight, but I feel like the guys all have respect for me, we all have respect for each other so I feel like my role as a leader will definitely increase this year.

Last summer, you were in the midst of dropping 60 pounds. How different has this summer felt for you?
It definitely feels different. I feel more comfortable with the new coaching staff. Last year was the first year for us, we didn't know what to expect. This year, I've been through this already and I feel like it couldn't be any tougher than it was for me last year. So this year I feel like I'm ready. I'm excited. I had a pretty good year, I feel like -- a lot of improvement -- and I just want to be more consistent and have a good season.

Has the team talked about collective goals with each other at all?
Briefly. We always have high expectations for ourselves. I know other people don't really talk too much about us. But we like having an underdog mentality and we're going to show that through our play. We expect to be in the top half of the Big Ten this year.

Toughness was a big area Pitino cited trying to improve this season. Do you see any hints that the team might?
We just ran a mile today, our first day back from time off. One of the things coach Brown  told us was if you took that time off and you didn't really work on your mile, it's going to be mental for you. You're going to have to fight through it and you're going to have to get your time. The guys fought through it, we ran the mile and it was pretty good.

To mention another sticking point, Minnesota's defensive efficiency was ranked last in the Big Ten a year ago. How much of a focus has improving that effectiveness been in the offseason?
Defense last year was one of our flaws. I think this year, we're comfortable in the style. The new guys are catching on pretty quickly -- the press is going to be more effective than it was last year, we could possibly lead the league in steals (ranked third in steal percentage last year according to kenpom.com) and let our offense be created through our defense.

You and Elliott Eliason kind of had a platoon thing going at center last year, and obviously you finished really well. Clearly you have different strengths, but do you feel like the competition helps to push you both?
Always. Always getting after each other. The spot is really up in the air. I'm not sure if I'm going to start or I'm not. I feel like I can make an impact whether it's starting the game or coming off the bench. But he's doing really well this summer so far and -- you know, it could be either one of us.

We didn't really know what to expect of you this time last year. You had a great season. Did you surprise yourself in any way?
I guess I did surprise myself. I knew I had the capability to perform well but I've never been in that situation where I had to perform. And I feel like being thrown in that situation and me performing well really surprised myself. I was glad with the way most of the season went. I had a few off games, I was pretty inconsistent I think, but overall, I think it was just me coming out of my shell and getting recognized.

Do you have any personal goals for this season?
I just want to be more consistent. I just want to have a good game every game, not have any off days. And hopefully through my play and through my teammates play, we'll have a great year.

What about statistics-wise?
I'd love to improve my rebounding. If I could average a double-double I'd be in heaven. 

Do you have a favorite personal moment from last year?
I'd have to say Wisconsin wouldn't I? (laughs) I remember a moment -- against Penn State on senior night. I remember getting an and-one in front of our bench and I yelled to the crowd and I looked at my mom and dad in the stands. I was getting excited. That was probably my favorite moment of the year because my parents were there and it was there first time getting to see me play in person when I actually was a contributing factor to the team.

They came to a few games when Tubby was here, and I didn't really play that much under Tubby.
Dad, only game he got to come to. Mom came to a few others. It was just really good to have them both there together, and it was a really special moment for me.

It's your last year now. It's been a long road. Have you started to get sentimental yet?
Definitely anxious, nervous, all those emotions. I don't know what I'm going to be doing this time next year. I've just got to take it one step at a time and prepare for this season because however this season goes will determine what I'm doing next year.

Other thoughts from my profile on DeAndre Mathieu

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: September 8, 2014 - 12:19 PM

In case you missed it in Sunday's Star Tribune, please check out my story on Minnesota point guard DeAndre Mathieu, reported from his home town of Knoxville, Tenn. It was, without a doubt, my favorite story I've reported.

I thought I'd share a few leftovers that didn't make the print edition here:


*It remains to be seen whether Mathieu will play professionally beyond this year. But he's technically already made money at his craft. In Lonsdale, the neighbors would pull up their cars to whatever street hoop 6-year-old Mathieu was balling on and offer a few dollars for him to show off his dribbling moves. "When he was able to walk, he was able to dribble," his grandmother, Candis Johnson said. A couple years later, he had improved dramatically. At a Thanksgiving get-together, Mathieu convinced his older cousin, Phillip Weaver (known as "Bam") to give him a dollar for every free throw he made. "He got to ten and I said 'Uh oh,'" Weaver said.

*Mathieu sang in the church choir growing up. His aunties bragged about his voice. Does he still sing? "Sometimes in the shower," he said with a grin. "Or when I'm bored."

*Leading seemed to come naturally for Mathieu. As a 10-year-old kid, his aunt Lori Simpson coached him in tee ball for one year. When the team lost a game, Mathieu would retreat to cry. But then he would gather himself and lead the team in prayer. It became his role.

*Brandon Lopez, walk-on at Tennessee and good friend of Mathieu on competing against a 7-year-old Mathieu, whose AAU team once beat Lopez' 45-5. "Watching him play when he was younger was ridiculous. His game was so much better than anybody else's. It was a mess. There was nothing we could do ... I'll never forget that game, it was crazy. He probably had half of them if he didn't account for every single point that day."

*The first time eventual Knoxville Central High School coach Mitch Mitchell saw Mathieu, he was coaching at a rival school. He watched a short, skinny, babyfaced kid with Allen Iverson- style braids and headband combo, walk out onto the court. He would be the starting point guard against Mitchell's eventual state championship team. Then the game began. "He was surprising because even against our good, athletic, bigger guards, even then he was able to penetrate and look to dish. He was starting to do his thing even then. And you saw there was something there that this kid is not normal."

*Mitchell on Mathieu: "He was always pushing and pushing his teammates to keep fighting. He was always competing. It was 'no matter what happens, I'm either going to prove you wrong or I'm going to beat you, and then you'll have to admit I'm right.' That's how Dre is. You can't replace those intangibles at all. That's the part you can't coach."



*Has he surprised himself with his success? "Surprised is an understatement," Mathieu said. "I never in my life dreamed of playing Big Ten basketball or being a JUCO All-American, things like that. I always had that dream, but after my senior year in high school where no one is calling and I'm going out and having these 30-point games, things like that, I'm thinking 'Man, this is not how I thought it was going to be.'

Did he have a chip on your shoulder about that? "Chip?" he said. "It was more like a brick. I was so frustrated for so long."

*Mathieu says he truly learned about being a leader in JUCO. During his senior season of high school, former assistant coach Mitch Mitchell took over the program and asked Mathieu to take more of a leadership role. But when he transferred from Morehead State (where he was a walk-on) to Central Arizona, it was the first time he acted as a leader to teammates he just met. "It really showed me I could lead guys I don't know," he said. "They all banded behind me. They didn't know me either."

*At Minnesota, though, things were different. This was the Big Ten. This was the big time. Mathieu just wanted to make life easy for stars Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins. "I just wanted to pass them the ball, get them easy looks," Mathieu said. "Coach Pitino came to me one day and said 'You're not just this JUCO guy that came in. You're one of our better players. You've got to be more of a leader.' That's when it really started to come to me -- at Minnesota, I could be a leader too."

*Pitino and Mathieu have a different relationship. Mathieu sees something in his coach that resonates with him. Pitino sees similarities between the two of them. He's talked to Mathieu about the pressures of carrying his last name, about being more than his father's son. "We kind of have that same fiery personality," Mathieu said. "We're both small, fiery guys and all we want to do is win.

*Mathieu on making a living to help his family: I remember one day [when he was a freshman in high school] after my step dad moved out, my mom came to me crying. She said she had to ask her mom [his grandmother] for $300 to pay a bill. I never want to see my mom cry again. I think about that before every game. I thought 'I gotta do something. I've got to get paid somehow. It's hard to watch your mom cry because she can't pay a bill ... My mom is tough. That's the only time I saw her cry until Tookie's funeral."

*Mathieu on Tookie: "You'd never know he lost his whole family. His mom, his dad, his sister. He was always joking. Always happy. Just the most outgoing person. On the basketball court, it showed too. Making threes, hand signals, all that. We were complete opposites. He was a lot more fiery, a lot more showy when he was on the floor. And just in person. You knew he was in the room, there was no doubt."

*A couple of nights after Tookie died, Tracy Johnson, Mathieu's mother, woke to the sound of crying. When she walked into the living room, Mathieu was there, curled up on the couch with his phone. Years of text messages between the two best friends were pulled up on the screen. Johnson gently urged Mathieu to delete them. She knew he could never forget. "That could have broke him," she said. "But he stayed strong.

*Simpson, Mathieu's aunt, on Lonsdale's support for Mathieu: "One thing in Lonsdale, they might talk about the crime, but people stick together. If they see somebody trying to make it in the world, they'll come together ... I'm proud to say I'm from Lonsdale."

*Jacqueline Daniels, Tookie's aunt on her nephew and Mathieu: "Him and Dre had that bond that nobody could have ... I believe if Tookie was here, he would have made it too. They would have made it together."

*Lopez on Mathieu's success: "I'm just happy for him. I can't even explain how happy I am for him because I've seen him struggle. From a basketball perspective, people always thought he was too short or not as big as he needed to be to really compete. But his work ethic is unmatched."

Minnesota gets its third commitment in Jonathan Nwankwo

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: September 5, 2014 - 11:48 PM

In its first typical recruiting class, the University of Minnesota men's coaching staff nabbed its third commitment on Friday night according to a source with knowledge of the situation. 

Center Jonathan Nwankwo, a three-star athlete in the 2015 class according to rivals.com, declared his allegiance to the Gophers on his first day of his official visit at Minnesota. Nwankwo, who is currently in high school in Florida, chose the Gophers over Seton Hall, Boston College, Tennessee and others.

Minnesota now has three commitments for the 2015 class, in which they have four total scholarships available. Gophers coach Richard Pitino was forced to fill four holes in two months after he was hired for the job in April of 2013, and began constructing his six-recruit 2014 class about seven months before the early signing period began.

NIT Season Tip-Off schedule released

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: September 5, 2014 - 1:36 PM

Minnesota will play two home games and two games at Madison Square Garden as part of the NIT Season Tip-Off held over Thanksgiving, the touranment committee announced on Friday.

The Gophers will host Western Kentucky on Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. and Division II Frankliln Pierce University at the same time on Nov. 20.

Minnesota will then head to New York, along with fellow host teams Georgia, Gonzaga and St. John’s. The Gophers face St. John’s in the semi-final on Nov. 26 on ESPNU. A championship (ESPN2, 5 p.m. CT), as well as a consolation game (ESPNU, 2:30 p.m. CT), will be held on Fri., Nov. 28.

Minnesota  was at Madison Square Garden in April, when the Gophers claimed the NIT title after playing in their second NIT title game in three years.

St. John’s also made an NIT appearance last year after finishing third in the Big East with a 20-13 record. The Red Storm lost to Robert Morris in the opening round.

Full NIT Tip-Off schedule here.

Five reasons why Minnesota should improve in the standings this season

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: September 5, 2014 - 12:32 PM

This season's Sporting News College Basketball Yearbook hit shelves this week, predicting all things Division I hoops.

Yep, it's that time of year again. No stunner that forecasts are starting to fall, just as college football is beginning.

I was a little surprised, however, when I flipped to the Big Ten section and saw Minnesota ranked all the way down at No. 9 within the league. As you'll recall, the Gophers finished seventh in the conference standings a year ago, then went on to win the NIT.

Considering that the heart of the team is back for 2013-14, that the Gophers have a more established system under second-year coach Richard Pitino and that we saw undeniable improvement from several different players, it's hard to imagine Minnesota going backwards this year, especially with the parity that appears to exist after No. 3 in the rankings.

My official prediction? The Gophers will take a small step in the standings, finishing sixth and sneaking into the NCAA tournament. Minnesota hasn't finished that high in the Big Ten since 2009-10.

Five reasons I believe it could happen this year:

1. The Gophers are stocked with veterans. Austin Hollins graduated, a loss that can't be overstated, but otherwise their end-of-year starting lineup remains in tact and it's seeped in experience. Platoon centers Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason are both seniors. Point guard DeAndre Mathieu and shooting guard Andre Hollins are too. Joey King, who finished the season starting at power forward will be a junior. Even Hollins' likely replacement at the 3-spot is Carlos Morris, a JUCO transfer heading into his third year of collegiate basketball. And that's your starting lineup, folks.

2. It's difficult to imagine the defense getting worse. There's a saying about rock bottom: when you hit it, you can only go up. A year ago, the Gophers ranked dead last in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. But this is Minnesota's second year with the press and Pitino has had a second summer to drive its fundamentals and its importance into his players heads. I'd be stunned if the Gophers actually went backwards.

3. Pitino already has a couple examples of finding underrated talent. Whose to say this class won't be more of the same? Sure, the Gophers don't have a splashy 2014 class coming in. But all four of the new coach's 2013 recruits overachieved, with JUCO transfer DeAndre Mathieu being the most extreme example of that. Beyond the talented point guard, freshman Daquein McNeil displayed surprising defensive sharpness, Malik Smith -- who slumped at the end of the year -- contributed to some big wins early with his shooting prowess, and Joey King was playing by far his best basketball in the postseason. That's a pretty good early track record for Pitino, who essentially had two months to reel in those four recruits.

4. Andre Hollins is hypothetically his old self. Don't forget that the Gophers either played a injured Hollins or without all together for the final 12 Big Ten games. Anyone watching realizes he was nothing like himself at the end of the year. The news, now, is that he's playing better than he has since his sophomore year. The difference between an aggressive Andre Hollins and the passive version is massive. If he can be that perpetual scoring threat once more, well, that is a big, big boost for Minnesota.

5. The Gophers lost five games in which they were trailing by four points or fewer at the end of regulation. Flip just two of them and Minnesota is in the NCAA tournament last year. Of course, losing a bunch of close games isn't all about luck and bad calls (although some of it is), but also about mental toughness, an area where the Gophers have plenty of room to improve. If they can, it could make a big difference on their final record.

As it often is in the Big Ten, there is a murky middle this year. Who will land fourth? Who will land 10th? Opinions seem to be all over the place. This morning I saw Lindy's Sports' Big Ten rankings (h/t UMhoops.com) -- and those folks have the Gophers landing at a stunning fourth in the league, something they last managed a decade ago.
But if all the cards fall for Minnesota (Walker takes the next step, Hollins is healthy and back to normal, Mathieu has the same year despite being defended harder and Morris is solid right away), it certainly could happen. It should be an interesting year.
 

The full predicted order of finish in the Big Ten, per Sporting News:

1. Wisconsin
2. Michigan State
3. Ohio State
4. Nebraska
5. Michigan
6. Iowa
7. Maryland
8. Illinois
9. Minnesota
10. Indiana
11. Penn State
12. Purdue
13. Northwestern
14. Rutgers

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