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
The Big Ten tournament starts today, and I'm expecting a wild ride. Or not. This has been the craziest of seasons. Maybe the league'll cap it off by not having a single upset in the tourney. You never do know.
But even though making predictions seems almost silly at this point (have you seen my preseason attempts?) I'm going to do it anyway because, well, it's what I do, and it's also kind of fun. And on the off-chance that I'm right about everything, I'll look like a genius.
Here we go:
Winner: Nebraska -- This is probably a risky pick but it's going to make me look extra smart if it happens because I haven't seen anyone else do it. (If I gambled this way I would probably be broke.) But seriously, the Huskers have been playing at as high a level as any team in the conference lately. In their last three games, they have shot 35.6 percent from three-point range, averaged just eight turnovers a game and has held opponents to .94 points per possession or fewer in two of those. That's a strong recipe.
Most Outstanding Player: Terran Petteway -- He went through a few "slower" games (for a guy who has failed to reach double digits just once in the conference slate, that is), but the breakout transfer is back on the money now, lighting up the scoreboard for 26 against Wisconsin. I say he steps up again over the weekend, on a long Huskers run.
Early exit: Ohio State -- The Buckeyes have been anything but consistent this year, and while they've beaten first-round matchup Purdue twice, they've also had their fair share of head scratchers (swept by Penn State?) Although the Boilermakers have struggled (understatement here), their physicality and tenacity on the offensive glass gives them the chance to catch any team off-guard. Thursday, I say that's Ohio State, fresh off a huge victory over Michigan State.
Best potential matchup: Minnesota- Wisconsin -- If the Gophers can handle beating the Nittany Lions on Thursday, they get the Badgers on Friday. Rubber game between border rivals? What could be better. Minnesota would love to get another stab at the boys from Madison, and the latter would likely love to show the Gophers that January Thing They Shall Not Discuss was simply an anomaly. The wild card? Mo Walker. He was huge in the first meeting, throwing up his career-high, 18-point night. In the second matchup, he was in foul trouble almost instantly and had trouble finding his aggressiveness again. Would he be able to avoid such a game again?
Bold prediction: Iowa will make a big run -- I know, I know, but I'm just going to go all the way with this. I've been saying the Hawkeyes are primed to big things for a while now and now they seem capable of losing pickup games at the YMCA. I keep thinking they'll turn it around in convincing fashion; wake up and become that team we saw for the first half of the Big Ten schedule. And why not now? Aren't they angry yet? If I go down with this prediction, at least we'll know I've been all in, the whole way. And that should count for something, guys.
Perhaps it's because he looks at it as "put up or die," rather than "put up or be eliminated."
Perhaps it's because he loathes those rare moments when his smile washes away as much as those who watch the perpetually grinning guard do.
Perhaps the sudden urgency awakens a drive that isn't always stirred -- even if it should be.
But for whatever reason, Andre Hollins has made a habit of accelerating his game in the postseason.
"That's happened since high school -- I always take it up another level when it comes to the postseason," Hollins said. "Just the mentality, not wanting to go home early ... I just take that to heart and leave it all out there on the floor."
Last season, the guard had two of his highest-scoring games of the season in the NCAA tournament, notching 28 points against UCLA and 25 points against Florida. In his freshman campaign, Hollins exploded for career-highs of 25 and 21 points in the Big Ten tournament before continuing the surge in the NIT. In that postseason, he averaged 17.3 points a game after averaging 6.6 for the rest of the year.
This year, more than any, the Gophers could benefit from such a spark.
Hollins, who received an All-Big Ten honorable mention this week from both coaches and the media, severely sprained his left ankle in Minnesota's win against Wisconsin at home. Though he came back three games later, he hasn't looked like the same player since. In the last three games, the guard has managed 37 combined points, but he's seemed hesitant at times and untrusting in his own ability when he tries to drive to the hoop.
After the Gophers' season-finale win over Penn State on Sunday, Hollins said his ankle was "100 percent" healed.
"I think with his injury, a lot of it's been mental," coach Richard Pitino said. "He'll make some moves sometimes where he thinks he's about to go by a guy, but maybe that ankle's not as great as it's been. But I think he's got better basketball in him. So I hope it's in the postseason."
If there truly is an extra gear, its hard to understand why Hollins can't access it all the time.
Since the start of the Big Ten slate, Hollins has averaged 13.3 points a game -- 1.3 points fewer than he averaged through 18 league games a year ago. He has had nice performances, but he hasn't really taken the next step than many thought he would, and he's rarely taken over games in vintage fashion. With the Gophers' roster holding more scoring options than it has in the past, there are times where he appears indifferent about getting involved.
"I don't know if I had very, very high expectations," Pitino said of Hollins' season thus far. "I thought he was a good player and I think he is a good player. Then he got hurt and I think it slowed him down ... hopefully he's close because we need him."
New life from Hollins now would change the look of the team. With Austin Hollins coming out of his slump in the last three games, and point guard DeAndre Mathieu and center Mo Walker continuing to play at a high level, the Gophers offense seems to be peaking. But a fourth consistent scorer would give Minnesota even more options, and a larger safety net for "off-games" by others.
Hollins not without motivation. And maybe the confidence of a history packed full of postseason success will give him the extra nudge he needs.
"I love this time of year," he said. "It's put up or die ... The lights are on. It's win or go home. And I don't want to go home."
Five tidbits while I cross my fingers about getting to Indy in orderly fashion with all this weather.
1. My story on Daquein McNeil and everything he has been through to get here ran in today's Star Tribune. I hope you can read it.
2. Video: Michael Rand and I discuss what needs to happen at the Big Ten tournament in order for the Gophers to slip into the Big Dance.
3. More Video: The newest Raise The Barn -- entitled "Finish Strong" -- is here, with a big focus on strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown.
4. From ESPN's Myron Medcalf, what to look for in the Big Ten tournament.
5. Jace Frederick, this season's student reporter at Daily in the Barn (who did a great job all year) was dubbed our fashion reporter due to his proclivity to comment on shoes and suits at every opportunity. Fittingly, he wrote an entertaining piece on Richard Pitino's suit collection -- many of which may or may not have come from ol' papa.
"The selection committee meeting begins this morning. It won't be long before the first few dozen teams are in the field." -- @jppalmCBS
"I don't know that the Gophs show up with RESPECT shirts again but Frazier and Newbill both getting the [All Big Ten] honors is great victory fuel for BTT."
Random rankings: Thankfully I'm flying direct today (knock on wood), but I spend my fair share of time hanging out in airports. On a travel day, the top five airports to layover in:
1. Denver: There is so much quality retail here, and as a bonus, you might run into Seahawks Panties Lady.
2. Austin: This airport was awesome. BBQ galore. Unfortunately, there is rarely a need for me to go that way.
3. Minneapolis: Yes, I do sometimes layover in my own city. This is also where I obviously spend the most time. Luckily, it's pretty strong.
4. Indy: Everything is relatively easy for such a large airport. And if there's enough time, going back through security to snag some Cafe Patachou is worth it.
5. LAX: I'm sure I'm in the minority here. But there are just some really good eats. And if you don't have to go through security/drive anywhere, who cares? Lemonade would be one of my favorite spots even if I wasn't qualifying it for restaurant fare, I think.
In the fall, Minnesota signed three new recruits for 2014: power forward Josh Martin and guards Nate Mason and Carlos Morris, with one scholarship left to spare.
But after a few unexpected mid-season twists, the Gophers now have two more scholarships to use.
First, last month, Wally Ellenson decided to quit the team to focus on track and field. Then, the University of Minnesota announced on Wednesday that Oto Osenieks would be hanging up his jersey due to knee troubles. Now, the Gophers have three possibilities left for the spring signing period, meaning things could be just hectic as they were in the fall, which is rarely the case.
Who will be the latest players to don maroon and gold? Right now, there are four Minnesota is going after the hardest:
Bakary Konate: The 6-11 Mali native (Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas) has already visited Minnesota, and the Gophers seem to be among the frontrunners for him. With Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker both seniors next year, the Gophers are in great need of a big man to develop and Konate seems like he could be a good fit. The center moves pretty well for his size and can shoot the ball a little as well. Louisville and Texas A&M are also involved, according to Rivals.com.
Djuan Piper: The Seattle (Rainer Beach) forward has said he's down to three schools, and Minnesota is among them. The 6-6 quick slashing Piper is one of the better recruits remaining in the 2014 class, but he will need to get his grades in order before signing day arrives. Minnesota would benefit from his good length and the addition would help bulk up a power forward position that needs depth. Piper visited Minnesota during the weekend of the Indiana game in early February. The other schools involved are Gonzaga and Washington.
Kobie Eubanks: The shooting guard from Our Savior New American (NY) has whittled his list down to five: Wichita State, Pittsburgh, Missouri, Baylor and Minnesota. The 6-4 Florida native had a visit scheduled for Wichita State, but never made it. Recently, Eubanks, a shooting specialist, visited Pitt and Baylor, and has talked about visiting the others although there is nothing scheduled at the moment.
Abdoulaye Gueye: The Gophers have been on the Senegal native for some time, but always knew he would be a late signee. Now, it could be a recruiting battle between Richard Pitino and Tubby Smith (how fun!) with Minnesota and Texas Tech showing the most interest, according to Rivals.com. The 6-9 power forward (currently at Central Park Christian in Birmingham) has great size, has a good jumper and would give the Gophers a very different type of player at the four-spot than they have currently have on the roster.
Now that the Gophers snatched up their regular-season finale over Penn State with a big win on senior night, they have a shot to get into the NCAA tournament.
But it won't be easy.
Minnesota will likely need to prove itself in the Big Ten tournament beyond a rematch against the Nittany Lions in the first round, CBS bracketologist Jerry Palm said. And beyond round two, the road is still rocky.
"Really, the only sure thing is to win the tournament," Palm said of Minnesota. "Less than that might do ... but the only way to control your destiny is to win your tournament."
The Gophers went 8-10 in the conference slate, with just a 2-7 record on the road, Minnesota's only victories away from home coming at Penn State and Northwestern.
Minnesota's strength of schedule is elite -- landing at fifth nationally -- but the Gophers RPI has been dropping. Currently, Minnesota is just within the Top 50 at No. 49.
While many of us have looked at the opening round opponent as a lucky draw for the Gophers, who have already beaten the Nittany Lions twice this season, Palm pointed out that it also ruins an opportunity.
Without a strong initial opponent, the Gophers will ultimately need to win more games to earn a berth, he said. Another victory over Penn State doesn't do anything for the Gophers' RPI, and it's certainly not going to impress the committee. It won't be the notable road win Minnesota so badly needs.
The absence of a strong win away from home is one of the things that separates Minnesota from a team like Nebraska, which has essentially played itself into the tournament at this point, notching wins at Indiana and against Wisconsin to end the year.
"There are other things that are hurting [the Gophers]," Palm said. "They've got some bad losses too ... but I think the thing that needs to be addressed right now is succeeding away from home.
"They have opportunities because of the conference and the tournament, and so they're fortunate to have those opportunities, but that's what they need to do. And beating just one might not be enough."
Palm said even in the scenario in which Minnesota beats both Wisconsin and its next round opponent -- say Michigan State -- he thinks the Gophers' ceiling is a double-digit seed simply based on the regular season.
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