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
When the Gophers faced Syracuse last week in the first round of the Maui Invitational, it was obvious they were short-handed.
With Mo Walker serving the last game of his six-game suspension and Joey King still nursing a fractured jaw, foul trouble was a real issue. Center Elliott Eliason was forced to sit for stretches and the Orange clobbered Minnesota in the paint at times, using its sheer size to overwhelm the Gophers. Even so, Minnesota played Syracuse closely, coming within two points with two minutes to go, and ultimately losing 75-67.
Now, a similar team comes to Williams Arena in Florida State – and the Gophers will see how much of a difference the full complement of frontcourt players makes. Minnesota is still undersized, particularly against the big, physical Seminoles, who have a pair of 7-footers in Boris Bojanovsky and Michael Ojo. Florida State is battle-tested and extremely tough. In a bit of scheduling misery for coach Richard Pitino -- "Embrace?" He asked aloud on Monday? "No. Fear? Yes. Embrace would not be the right word." -- the matchup falls immediately after returning from three games in three days on the islands.
Calling tonight’s game an incredibly demanding challenge is an understatement.
‘They’re big, they’re strong,” Pitino said of the Seminoles. “We’ve got to try to use our speed as a bit of a strength … Syracuse, it appeared they were going over our back on a lot of rebounds. They were just so much bigger. We’ve got to do a better job of blocking out and driving them back. So we’ve got to try to speed them up a little bit more and try not to get in the half court as much as possible.”
The Gophers have the advantage of being able to watch film of this Florida State team facing opponents that tried to do many of the same things Minnesota will tonight. Florida State has already played VCU – with its ‘havoc’-style basketball – and Florida, whose coach, Billy Donovan was one of the major inspirations for Pitino’s own philosophy. But the data isn’t necessarily all that encouraging.
The Seminoles won decidedly over VCU in Richmond, and then came within a single point of beating No. 15 Florida on their court.
Both opponents have many more players recruited to the specific style, and have been doing it much longer than the Gophers – and both failed to ease FSU out of its comfort zone in a meaningful way.
“I thought they did a really good job of attacking Florida’s press,” Pitino said of the Seminoles. “They did some good things to beat it, score some buckets against it. We’ve got to make them earn their buckets in my opinion. I think they’re a very talented team.”
Other notes on tonight’s game:
Richard Pitino said he sees something new in shooting guard Malik Smith -- and it's not necessarily the shooting precision and higher point totals that have come along as well.
What the coach sees is trust.
In the last three games, Pitino has played Smith an average of 27.6 minutes per game after the senior logged 18.6 a game in the first five.
The baskets, Pitino knew, would come. It's what he saw all last year at Florida International. But it's no coincidence they seem to be falling more than ever now. Smith is on the court more, which allows him to get in a comfort zone. And he's on the floor more because he's doing a better job at the little things.
"At FIU, he was not a great defender," Pitino said. "And honestly a lot of that had to do with he knew he wasn’t coming out. So I could yell and scream at him as much as possible but then I couldn’t take him out. So he had me. But now he knows if he doesn’t do those things, that leash is a little bit shorter ...
"Now, he’s defensively pressuring a lot better. He really wasn’t a great leader at FIU. You’re hearing him a lot more in time outs, so I’m proud of him. I think he’s understanding that he needs to bring those things or he’s going to sit."
The new role took some time for Smith to balance. After being the primary scorer at FIU, the guard has come off the bench at Minnesota, a change that required a lot of adjustment.
Pitino said he didn't think he handled it well in the beginning, and noted that Smith was "really really frustrated." But that sentiment has come around, and the results are evident. In the last three games, Smith has led the team with a total of 47 points.
"The first couple games for me were pretty rough," Smith said. "I was pretty hard on myself. Got in the gym as much as possible after practice, before practice, getting up shots. And I just came into Maui with the mindset that I’m going to be aggressive no matter what, and that’s what I just tried to do."
It's still not pretty all the time -- Smith has the tendency to get cocky with his shot when it's falling -- but Pitino has always said it's part of the give-and-take with a player that is able to provide such a big spark.
"Coach tells me that all the time – don’t be scared when you’re out there. Just go out there and be aggressive, take shots if you’re open," Smith said. He laughed. "Sometimes I don’t do that. I know I take some contested shots sometimes but coach says he’ll deal with it as long as I rebound and play defense."
If we were to split the season into five pieces, the Gophers would be heading into the third stage.
First is the early-season slate, highlighted by a road trip to Richmond. Then, the Maui Invitational, a beast on it's own, with three games in three days. Later will be the Big Ten schedule, and eventually a postseason of sorts if the Gophers find themselves in position for one.
But now, with the tropical island behind them, the Gophers find themselves in the pre-conference, pre-Christmas grind.
They're tired from the challenges behind; they're looking to the tests ahead.
It would be easy to want to set the forward motion on cruise control until the Big Ten opener -- Michigan at home. But the Gophers have plenty to improve upon, as they showed in Maui, and the December slate isn't exactly full of cupcakes, starting with an extremely challenging game against Florida State on Tuesday and including an always-threatning South Dakota State.
Minnesota looked strong early and looked much shakier in the Aloha State. Can they balance out and give us a true idea of just who this team is before the conference competition begins? There are still many questions revolving around the Gophers.
How capable is the frontcourt with Mo Walker back in the fold? This aspect of the team has been a major theme throughout the year, and it isn't going away anytime soon. We are just getting our first glimpses of Walker since the exhibition games, and it's tough to make any judgment yet of just how quickly he can become a productive member of the frontcourt again. He looked rusty in his first game back, against Arkansas, and he shook off some of that against Chaminade, but it's hard to draw too much from play against a DII team. In general, in the Maui Invitational, the Gophers' frontcourt looked to be struggling with everything we expected they would: interior defense, scoring in the paint and overall toughness and size.
What will the rotation be? Coach Richard Pitino has toyed with his core group of guys a little bit, playing a very short bench against Syracuse (only Joey King and Malik Smith). Will the coach stick with something that more closely resembles that construction (plus, of course, Mo Walker, now that he's available) or will he continue to bring in guys like Wally Ellenson and Maverick Ahanmisi?
Can the Gophers be a consistently good shooting team? It's one thing to nail three-pointers against sub-par competition or when the pressure is off. It's another to do it on the regular. When a team can regularly rely on their outside shot if other things aren't working, that's when it becomes a strength. The Gophers have showed a lot of promise, shooting 52.2 percent from the field in the first half of the Syracuse game, and 65.2 percent in the first half of the Arkansas game. The other four halves Minnesota has managed to connect on just 47 of 129 attempts, or 36.4 percent.
Will Andre Hollins be the team's leader night-in and night-out? Pitino maintains that he's not worried -- and it's certainly not time to be -- but the junior guard kind of disappeared at times in Maui, when the team needed him as much as ever. Hollins averaged 11 points, three rebounds and one assist through the tournament -- certainly not shabby, but not the same dominant we've been seeing from him for most of the year.
How far does the defense have to go? The press has looked great; the press has looked worthless. The 2-3 zone has looked strong; the 2-3 zone has looked powerless to stop anyone. To Pitino's credit, he has been quick to make adjustments when they're needed. But his new trapping system takes some time to get used to. Just how far along are the Gophers in achieving their defensive goals?
Looking at the big picture, there is plenty to criticize about the Gophers’ three games at the Maui Invitational. Minnesota went 1-3 with its only win being a Division II team and looked lifeless in stretches.
But peeling back that initial disappointment for the team, there were some bright spots, perhaps the biggest being Malik Smith, who hit a new level of production while on the island.
After averaging just 6.6 points through the Gophers first five games, Smith contributed 15.6 per game in the Aloha State. With 47 points in three days, the senior guard showed why he gets a longer leash than anyone else on the team.
“Malik brings great energy, that senior leadership off the bench,” Andre Hollins said. “He played great in this tournament. He’s great to come in if I was having a bad night, Austin is having a bad night, we always have that extra weapon.”
His output was all that much more important, then, with Hollins looking somewhat “off” for the trio of games (coach Richard Pitino has said, of course, that he’s not worried).
Sure, Smith has the tendency to throw up some bad shots. But he also is capable of a big spark, something he showed in all three games. Smith also looked more involved on both sides of the ball than he has for most of the year, scoring off of drives as well as from the perimeter and getting to the line, while better defending his man.
The FIU transfer’s two first-half three-pointers helped the Gophers make it a game – the second of those pulling them within three –and then when Minnesota started to fall off again in the second, Smith hit a pair of consecutive threes to keep the team close. Against Arkansas, Smith kept the magic alive, with 13 first-half points to put the Gophers up by five at the break before they eventually lost, 87-73.
“He’s a guy you’ve got to put on the floor,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said of his team’s struggles defending Smith in the first half. “What he did, he almost torched us, but we did a much better job in the second half of making him handle it and not necessarily just spotting up.”
Smith did cool off in that second half, scoring just two more points, but again was a big part of the Gophers returning from their first-half slumber against Chaminade. Smith, whose absence was felt in the first as he scored just two points, helped to get Minnesota rolling with 14 points down the stretch.
After taking some time to adjust to a new role off the bench – after being the primary scorer at FIU – it seems Smith has found a comfort zone.
“We just try to compete night-in and night-out like coach says,” Smith said. “Try to work hard every day and just transfer that over to the games.”
The guard has the tendency to hit baskets in bunches – it’s pretty clear that Smith loves to shoot and when he’s feeling it, he’ll really seek out opportunities. The downside of that is that Smith will sometimes continue to aggressively shoot even after it has stopped falling.
That, however, is what you get with Malik Smith. A little bit of mind-numbing frustration; a little bit of game-changing jubilation.
So far, it seems to be working.
Aloha and Happy Thanksgiving from Maui.
I hope everyone is getting their fill today, and finding things to be thankful for. I'm thankful for a good job that occasionally brings me to places like Hawaii, and I'm thankful for readers that help the Star Tribune to keep chugging away!
On this day, five things the Gophers should be thankful for:
1. They didn't lose to Chaminade -- Hey, the trip back from Hawaii could be a lot longer had the Gophers gone 0-for-3 and taken last place behind a Division II team. Instead the team gritted it out in the final minutes, giving them something to feel good about on the trek home.
2. Mo Walker is back -- The frontcourt has a little more girth and one more body. For a team that only had forward on the bench in the first six games, the addition is huge. And Walker started to shake off some of the rust against Chaminade, recording ten points and seven rebounds.
3. They're headed back to friendlier territory -- That is, Williams Arena, where the schedules will be normal (once they all re-adjust) and the routines will be too. No more parrots and boogie boards and 9 a.m. games. Minnesota gets the next seven games in the friendly confines of the Barn.
4. There are bright spots -- So the Gophers went 1-2 and the only game they won was against a DII opponent and even then they made it look hard? The trip wasn't all bad though. Minnesota's matchup against Syracuse -- in what should have been the toughest game of the non-conference schedule -- didn't look one sided. The Gophers battled and did a lot of good things. Malik Smith hit a new groove that we hadn't yet seen in a Gopher uniform. DeAndre Mathieu proved his value yesterday, pulling the Gophers out of a sticky situation. There are plenty of positives to be drawn from the midst of the disappointment.
5. They have tans. Five days in Hawaii? Who is to complain!
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