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

Posts about College basketball

Strength & Conditioning coach Shaun Brown on Gophers newcomers: "They're home runs"

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: August 7, 2014 - 10:17 AM

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."

Gophers basketball summer series: Joey King adding bulk, working on ballhandling

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: August 6, 2014 - 10:30 AM

Earlier this summer, Minnesota assistant coach Dan McHale had a message for Joey King.

He needed to work on his lateral quickness.

As usual, the directive was met with a stare, and very few words.

An hour later, McHale spotted King in the gym, training rubber bands looped around his ankles, doing slides.

"He is a kid that is coachable," McHale said of the junior-to-be forward. "Joey King is our hard hat guy."

Head coach Richard Pitino and the rest of the staff have sited physical and mental toughness as the team's biggest weaknesses a year ago. King, McHale said, is the epitome of how they want the team to be. He works hard. He's thick-skinned. He reads and understands the scouting reports as well as anyone. And he's not afraid to sacrifice his body in the name of competition.

"He would dive off the stage of the Barn if you asked him to," McHale said."

This summer, King has been working on getting quicker while also putting on bulk. He's added about 20 pounds since last fall, according to strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown. Initially, the staff was concerned the mass would slow him down further; instead it's actually increased his vertical -- these days, King is dunking a lot more in practice. Even so, the staff knows that's not very realistic to expect. Two weeks ago, Pitino told a story about throwing a ball off the backboard for super athletic freshman Josh Martin to fling in the bucket. Afterwards, King wanted his turn.

"I said 'No, Joey,'" Pitino joked. "That's not your game."

The other major project of the summer for King is improving his ballhandling. 

"We want to put him in situations where he can handle it and then getting his shot off quicker," McHale said. 

One thing the team isn't giving a huge focus to is King's fouling proclivity. A year ago, he had 101 fouls -- averaging 2.7 a game -- which was second only to center Elliott Eliason. But the coaches don't want to take away the aggressiveness that makes King who he is.

"As frustrated as we got in the Florida State game when we were shorthanded and told him not to foul (and he had four), you can't do anything about it," McHale said. "The kid just plays so hard. He plays harder than anyone, he has the ultimate chip on his shoulder and he knows how appreciative he is to play for Minnesota."

Gophers basketball summer series: Joey King adding bulk, working on ballhandling

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: August 6, 2014 - 10:30 AM

Earlier this summer, Minnesota assistant coach Dan McHale had a message for Joey King.

He needed to work on his lateral quickness.

As usual, the directive was met with a stare, and very few words.

An hour later, McHale spotted King in the gym, training rubber bands looped around his ankles, doing slides.

"He is a kid that is coachable," McHale said of the junior-to-be forward. "Joey King is our hard hat guy."

Head coach Richard Pitino and the rest of the staff have sited physical and mental toughness as the team's biggest weaknesses a year ago. King, McHale said, is the epitome of how they want the team to be. He works hard. He's thick-skinned. He reads and understands the scouting reports as well as anyone. And he's not afraid to sacrifice his body in the name of competition.

"He would dive off the stage of the Barn if you asked him to," McHale said."

This summer, King has been working on getting quicker while also putting on bulk. He's added about 20 pounds since last fall, according to strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown. Initially, the staff was concerned the mass would slow him down further; instead it's actually increased his vertical -- these days, King is dunking a lot more in practice. Even so, the staff knows that's not very realistic to expect. Two weeks ago, Pitino told a story about throwing a ball off the backboard for super athletic freshman Josh Martin to fling in the bucket. Afterwards, King wanted his turn.

"I said 'No, Joey,'" Pitino joked. "That's not your game."

The other major project of the summer for King is improving his ballhandling. 

"We want to put him in situations where he can handle it and then getting his shot off quicker," McHale said. 

One thing the team isn't giving a huge focus to is King's fouling proclivity. A year ago, he had 101 fouls -- averaging 2.7 a game -- which was second only to center Elliott Eliason. But the coaches don't want to take away the aggressiveness that makes King who he is.

"As frustrated as we got in the Florida State game when we were shorthanded and told him not to foul (and he had four), you can't do anything about it," McHale said. "The kid just plays so hard. He plays harder than anyone, he has the ultimate chip on his shoulder and he knows how appreciative he is to play for Minnesota."

Where Are They Now: Former PG Al Nolen pursuing a second dream, off the court

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: August 5, 2014 - 9:04 AM

Al Nolen remembers that first semester just as clearly now, seven years later.

Classes at the University of Minnesota were beginning, and the course loads were piling up as he headed into his freshman year with the Gophers. Nolen wasn't accustomed to studying as much as was necessary simply to pass. As the year, went on, his eyes grew wider. He saw other students around campus who seemed organized and completely under control, which couldn't have been further from how he felt.

"I was definitely overwhelmed," he said. "I kind of stumbled and had to find my way the hard way because I wasn't prepared mentally with the study skills I needed in order to be successful in school."

Now, two years out of his overseas basketball career, Nolen hopes to eliminate some of the struggles he went through as a kid from the inner city. Last year, the former point guard took a job as the Dean of Students at Anthony Middle School in South Minneapolis, not too far from where he grew up. 

In his neighborhood, there wasn't a culture of working hard in school, his said. The kids he hung with all wanted to go on to do bigger and better things, but instead of visualizing that ascent through school, they fantasized about becoming sports stars. Nolen hopes to do his part to snap kids' heads out of the clouds before it's too late.

He knows he was lucky. A basketball scholarship at a high-major university afforded him certain opportunities, and a safety net. After struggling to stay eligible at Minnesota, Nolen was forced to sit out the second semester of his junior year with inadequate grades. He left, a year later, a few credits shy of a degree

When he returned from playing overseas, the university paid for him to finish.

Other kids, he knows, won't have so many chances.

"I feel like a lot of inner city kids aren't taught or aware of the skills that are needed," he said. "It's not being pushed in their face -- they're seeing everything else except for that ... I thought that since I've been there and I've done it and kind of went through the gauntlet as you could say, I wanted to help out."

These days, any kid at Anthony who gets in trouble, gets frustrated in class or simply needs a break arrives in Nolen's office. Sometimes he'll hand out detention or call or meet with the parents. Other times, he'll simply talk. 

"Being a mentor, that's how I look at it," he said. 

The new position -- from point guard to counselor -- feels natural for Nolen, who hung up his high tops at the end of his 2012-13 season overseas. 

After his four years with at Minnesota -- he finished with the second most steals (205) in Gophers history despite missing half his junior season and much of his senior year with a broken foot -- Nolen initially signed with the NBA's development league, where he bounced around for half a year.

It was his first taste of professional basketball. At that level, the facilities weren't as nice. The trainers weren't as good. The team rode on busses rather than the private jets Minnesota chartered. Most of all, the team camaraderie he experienced in college was absent. 

"In the D-League, it's every man for himself," Nolen said. "It was a difficult experience for me because I'd never been away from home."

Soon, though, he went farther. He played a half a season in Germany -- he called it "total culture shock" -- before signing a contract with a team in the Czech Republic. There, two of his coaches didn't speak any English. He would watch other players to try and figure out the instructions in any given drill. And outside of the facility, few locals spoke any English. He held up lines at the grocery store, trying to figure out how much money he owed, and what that meant. The time difference was so extreme that he rarely got the chance to Skype with his parents or his sisters.

"As tough as it was to travel to Europe and to play basketball there, it's one of the things I will never regret in my life and its something I'm grateful for," he said. "I have a better understanding, more of an appreciation for America."

But, he felt, it was time to move on. He lived out his dream, played professionally, made some money, saw Europe. He was tired.

"It's a job now -- it's about the money," he said of his thinking."I kind of lost the passion for it ... it got to the point where basketball kind of just started to feel like I was forcing it, just forcing it because it was something I'd been doing all my life and it was the thing I was used to."

He decided to pursue a second dream: inspiring the next generation.

He moved back to Minneapolis, finished the six credits necessary for him to get his degree in business and marketing, and eventually was hired by Jackie Hanson, the principal at Anthony. Now, he's started an online basketball training company, Al Nolen Basketball (alnolenbasketball.com) to get his basketball fix. What's next? Getting his masters degree somewhere, he said, in hopes of someday becoming an athletic director. 

In the meantime, he's enjoyed keeping up with his alma mater, and new basketball coach Richard Pitino. He's been working out with the team some over the summer and has gotten close with new point guard DeAndre Mathieu.

"I like coach Pitino a lot," he said. "He really wants to see the best for the players, and he brings it out in them. He's hard on them but at the same time, he instills confidence in them ... I just really think he's going to bring new life into the Minnesota program and take us to the next level."

Gophers basketball summer series: Elliott Eliason's tweaked game "could surprise some people"

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: July 31, 2014 - 12:45 PM

These days, the University of Minnesota basketball coaches are seeing a lot more of Elliott Eliason's bare chest. 

The center, one summer after losing more than 20 pounds and dramatically changing his body, walks around the court and weight room and Bierman Athletic Building, now, sans shirt.

Last season, Eliason essentially doubled his production from the previous year, going from 2.2 points and 3.5 rebounds a game to averaging five points and 6.6 rebounds, while playing eight more minutes than he had his sophomore year. Although his offensive output was largely inconsistent -- Eliason scored in double digits seven times but also scored four points or fewer 19 times -- he solidified himself as a highly valuable asset as the last line of defense. The Nebraska native finished with 72 blocks, ranking third in the Big Ten. His block percentage (10.6) landed 28th nationally according to kenpom.com.

Now, he's eliminated pesky injuries caused by being out of shape. He's lifting 185 pounds on the bar, up from 135. He's ripping off sets of chin-ups where before, reeling off just a couple was a struggle.

"I bring it up to him every day -- he's getting tired of it," strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown said. "Showing him what he was doing a year ago, what he's doing today.

"It's kind of eye opening."

Now, the Gophers are hoping Eliason will be able to take the next steps. With a base built last year -- a smaller frame and more strength -- Eliason can knuckle down on rounding out his game.

Assistant Dan McHale sat with the big man in his office earlier this season, going through each of his makes and misses. The patterns were obvious.

One of his goals is to improve his shooting, yes, but in a smart way: Perfecting a turn-around jumper that is already difficult to block because of his high release. Adding an 8-to-10 foot jumper that McHale believes will "surprise some people." And rather than forcing his weaknesses -- he will never be a back-to-the-basket player -- the coaches have Eliason working on securing a deep position in the paint more consistently, so he doesn't have to post up off the block.

"When he gets deep post position, you can't guard him," McHale said. "He's too big, he's too massive of a frame.

"It isn't reinventing the wheel with him. It isn't trying to get more counters or up-and-unders or drop-steps. It's definitely just trying to get post position."

Even so, the Gophers are well aware that Eliason's true worth comes on the other end of the court. He's established himself as an elite defensive rebounder (ranked 39th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage), post defender and rim runner while running the floor as well as any big man in the conference.

When Eliason keys in on those aspects of his game, McHale believes the offense will come. The assistant thinks the center could lead the Big Ten in rebounding this season, and transform himself into one of the better big men in the conference. His offense should never be the focus. 

"The next thing he knows, he wakes up and he's got 10, 12 points," McHale said. 

"He has to understand what makes him valuable ... He's never going to be a physically chiseled beat-you-up type of guy. The way Elliott is effective is he can out-run anyone in the league and he's got a long wingspan."

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