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
On Friday, Minnesota received a commitment from Gaston Diedhiou, a very under-the-radar 6-9, 225-pound big man from the Canary Islands in Spain.
Now, with the spring signing period starting on Wednesday and one of three available scholarships accounted for, another big remains the Gophers' top target.
Six-eleven, 230-pound center Bakary Konate could make a decision as early as tomorrow and Minnesota appears to be on good footing.
The Mali native, who attends Sunrise Christian Academy, would be Minnesota's fifth recruit for the 2014 class. The Gophers signed power forward Josh Martin and guards Nate Mason and JUCO Carlos Morris in the fall, and Diedhiou -- a 20-year-old who is originally from Senegal, and was minimally recruited otherwise -- is expected to pen his National Letter of Intent tomorrow.
Otherwise, Minnesota's recruiting efforts remain elusive. The Gophers have long been interested in Djuan Piper, but academic issues could force the Seattle wing to go the JUCO route. Power forward Abdoulaye Gueye, a Senegal native playing in Birmingham who visited Georgia Tech over the weekend, seems in no hurry to make a decision. Recently, he also told rivals.com that his top schools are Texas Tech and Georgia Tech.
A short list of names that have been tossed around in association with the Gophers seems to hold little substance. Minnesota appears to have cooled on Kentucky power forward Jackson Davis and North Carolina power forward Jakeem Yates. Interest in Anthony Allen, a 7-foot JUCO that has been speculated about, appears to be low right now.
If Konate commits to the Gophers soon, coach Richard Pitino and his staff could turn their focus to 2015, saving the remaining scholarship for that class.
Konate is still considering four schools: Minnesota, Texas A&M, Tulane and Creighton. The big man is unranked according to rivals.com, but his size and ability to step out on the perimeter and make shots has intrigued an array of notable programs.
The Gophers have two centers on the roster in Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason, but both will be in their final year of eligibility next season.
Austin Hollins didn't even try to relive it.
He couldn't. He was too busy shyly smiling and bowing his head and acting like he wanted to change the subject.
"It's indescribable," he said, meaning just that.
Less than an hour earlier, before all the fanfare and the pictures and the cutting down of the NIT championship net, he seized the last assist from his longtime backcourt mate and close friend, Andre Hollins, planted his feet and capped a four-year career in maroon and gold with an arching, 21-foot meridian.
When the ball left his hands, the tie was erased. The Gophers wouldn't lose that lead, ultimately claiming the 65-63 victory over Southern Methodist.
Andre Hollins knew, instantly, what it meant.
Nearly an hour later, coach Richard Pitino first contemplated it.
"That was his last shot?" he said, interrupting the player's portion of the press conference. "I know it's not my turn, sorry ... That's the way he should have walked away as a Gopher."
His will be memorable branch of Minnesota history. The 1,000-point scorer and four-year starter competed in an NCAA tournament and a pair of NIT championships, winning the last. He'll be recalled as an understated leader, one of the team's hardest and most consistent workers and perhaps one of the more underrated defensive specialists in the Big Ten.
And he'll be remembered in combination with Andre Hollins
He and Andre have long been linked together for obvious reasons: the unrelated duo hails from the same part of Tennessee, share a last name and, coincidentally, a No. 20 jersey at competing high schools. At Minnesota, they grew together and found a special chemistry.
"Coming in together, the Hollins bros -- just putting it work and we've become friends," Andre started. He wanted to wrap up the pair's relationship in a few certain words, but there was another celebration happening at mid court, so instead he sprinted off, mid-sentence to join Austin and the rest of his "bros."
Then again, putting the past three years in words would probably be tough.
He has seen his fellow Memphis native through the good and the bad: the wins, the losses, the personal successes and the struggles. This year, both of the starting guard mainstays had to adjust when former coach Tubby Smith was fired after the previous season and Pitino took over in his place. In the new system, each had their ups and downs. The elder Hollins started out the year hot, looking like a natural for the new pushed pace and fluidity on offense and averaging nearly 14 points a game in his first 11. But mired in half-court settings and forced up against the tough man-to-man defenses of the Big Ten, the lanky guard began to struggle. From January 1 to February 22, Hollins failed to score in double digits nine times and went 13-for-56 from three-point range in that stretch.
On the senior's way out the door, he found a new stride again. After finishing up the conference season with 80 points in his final five games, Hollins had scored a new career-high 32 against Southern Miss in the NIT quarterfinals and 17 in a gutty performance vs. Florida State in the semis. The long triple made 19 in the final, and it pushed the Gophers to their final lead with 45 seconds to go. Andre just started screaming, later saying he's never been so happy for a teammate's shot.
A little while later, after the clock winded down and his father, former NBA coach Lionel Hollins, and mother piled on the court with the rest of the gleeful, tearful families, Austin slipped off his damp white Minnesota home jersey for the last time.
There will be more words. For now, the Gophers are enjoying the last act of 2013-14. That night, Andre only had a few short sentences for the teammate he calls his best friend.
"Congratulations bro. I love you man. This is awesome."
Read my full game story on the Gophers' 65-63 win over Southern Methodist tonight here.
Before Austin Hollins' final shot in maroon and gold -- a spine-tingling half moon and the kiss of death for SMU; Before the Gophers swarmed at mid-court with their friends and families, decked out in smiles and 'NIT Champions' T-shirts; Before Minnesota cut down the net, Richard Pitino sat in an uptown Manhattan steam bath with his father.
Rick Pitino, Louisville's current coach, had flown to New York on Monday to watch his son participate in the NIT semifinals and with Tuesday's win, the finals. Thirty-six years into his coaching career, the elder Pitino has nearly done it all. He's coached two NBA teams, four college squads and picked up seven Final Four appearances, two NCAA tournament titles -- including last year -- and a Hall-of-Fame induction along the way. He'd seen his share of celebrations and knew how contagious such achievements were.
He turned to his son, who is in his first season at Minnesota and his second as a head coach, and waxed on about how much a victory later that evening would mean so early in his career.
"What a thrill it would be if you win this," he said.
According to the father, Richard rolled his eyes. "He said 'Thanks dad.'" said.
No pressure was evident later that evening, when Pitino and the Gophers dispensed Southern Methodist.
But perhaps the coach fed off a little of the energy swarming just behind the bench. Rick Pitino was one of several family members that made the trip including Richard's mother, Joanne and his younger brother, Ryan.
The elder Pitino, in particular, was especially animated throughout the game, waving his arms and shouting at players. He looked primed to hop across the row of seats and onto the floor, if necessary. A few times, Richard turned back to share a word.
"I saw little coach P back there look back at him a couple of times to ask for a little bit of advice," DeAndre Mathieu said. "I mean, when you have a legend, why not use him."
Richard Pitino later laughed.
"I get paid enough to coach this game by myself," he said.
With one Hall-of-Famer in his corner, he bested another. SMU's Larry Brown is the only coach in history to win both an NCAA tournament title (Kansas; 1988) and an NBA title (Detroit Pistons; 2004). He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002.
"I've got unbelievable respect for him, his passion for the game," Pitino said. "He's as sharp as it gets. Every time we switched defenses, he sniffed it out right away."
Even more significant, though, was the success in front of his family, and the man who egged him on earlier that day to notch such an accomplishment, so early.
"It means a lot, not just my dad but my whole family," Pitino said. "My mom being here, my wife, my in-laws, my uncles, aunts, everybody being behind the bench. It was a lot of fun."
Tuesday, when Minnesota stepped on the court, it resembled a crew of boys among men, dwarfed by Florida State's size.
Through a grinding, scrapped together performance, and some hot three-point shooting, the Gophers pulled out a win anyway, though it wasn't always pretty. Tonight they shouldn't have that problem. SMU, although arguably more talented that FSU, is a more comparable physically to the Gophers.
The Mustangs will also challenge their speed, starting at the point guard spot. Minnesota's DeAndre Mathieu will go against SMU's Nic Moore in perhaps the most interesting matchup on the floor. Both players are new to their teams -- Moore coming from Illinois State; Mathieu from Central Arizona Colslege. Both are listed at 5-9. Both are speedy in driving to the basket and skilled finishers. Statistically, they are nearly identical. Mathieu averages 12 points and 4.1 assists. More sits at 13.5 points and 4.8 assists.
And both are probably their team's most valuable cogs. Without them, it's hard to imagine either squad advancing this far.
"There's a lot of similarity between the two," SMU coach Larry Brown said. "They are both real quick and they are both, you know real important to each team."
Which player is able to fill that role most dynamically could have a hand in the ultimate victor.
Against Florida State, Mathieu was stellar, shooting 50 percent from the field, and going 2-for-2 from behind the three-point line. The floor general's four turnovers were redeemed by his 17 points, four assists and four rebounds.
"He's consistently, top to bottom, probably been our best player and most important and most valuable player. And you never know what that's going to be like when you bring a JUCO point guard in ... he makes us go."
In the earlier game, Moore finished with 13 points, five rebounds and four assists and hit the pair of free throws with four seconds left to clinch the win, but struggled some on the defensive end. His cover, Rod Hall, had an 18-point, five-assist night. Brown made it clear that the tiny point guard is the coal in the engine for SMU -- the Mustangs rise and fall with his production, much as Minnesota does with Mathieu.
"We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him," Brown said, speaking generally of Moore's impact on the team this season. "He's a competitor. He makes shots. He's really, really trying to do the things I ask him to do ... I'm sure he's going to be in for another challenge but we need him to play at a high level."
As of yesterday, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino still wasn't sure if he would have center Elliott Eliason (ankle) available vs. SMU in tonight's NIT championship (6 p.m. tipoff; ESPN; 1500-a.m.).
But the health of one of his guards -- mentally and physically -- could prove just as important.
In a 67-64 overtime win against Florida State on Tuesday, Andre Hollins managed 13 points, four rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals. It was one of his strongest and most versatile performances in some time.
It's no secret that Hollins hasn't been the same since severely spraining his left ankle in a game against Wisconsin on Jan. 22. In four of the previous five games, the junior had failed to reach double digits. More concerning than that, though, is his hesitancy offensively, which has become a trend throughout the year. Often, we've seen a version of Hollins that is content to sit in the corner, dribble twice and throw up a perimeter shot. He rarely drives to the basket or works to get himself involved away from the ball.
Tuesday, we saw a spark of something different: the Andre Hollins everyone hoped he would grow into in his third year. He was more aggressive offensively, powering into the lane and getting to the line six times.
It was only the fourth time since the start of the Big Ten schedule that Hollins, Austin Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu all scored in double digits, and the combination made all the difference.
How much of Hollins' down-tick has been the result of lingering pain and tightness from his injury, we can't say. After coming down on a defender's foot in the opening seconds of the Wisconsin game, Hollins missed just two other games. He struggled upon his return, but has said for weeks that he's 100 percent physically. Wednesday he tempered that statement a little bit.
"With an ankle injury like mine, it takes time to get that explosiveness, get that movement, get that motion, get that jumping ability to get fouled and try to finish over bigger defenders," he said. "And I guess that's kind of progressed lately, so I used that to my advantage."
Asked where he was in that process, Hollins replied that he was "pretty good."
Thursday provided hints of that.
The motivation to build off the semifinal is there. Two years ago, a red hot Hollins averaged 19.5 points in the six games leading up to the NIT championship game, dating back to the start of the Big Ten tournament. But against Stanford in the title game, Hollins mustered just four points, adding five turnovers before fouling out. Minnesota lost by 24.
"It's sour when you struggle in any game, and especially the championship game," Hollins said. "You never want to lose like that."
He'll have a chance to make it right tonight.
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