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
How do you get your players prepared to shoot free throws in a raucous, high-pressure situation?
Faced with that question since the start of the year -- and the start of Minnesota's troubles at the line -- coach Richard Pitino is stopping just short of having Goldy charge at the players as they toe the foul stripe.
For the last three weeks, the team has been shooting extra free throws, before and after practice. Now, he's making them run on misses and trying to get throw them off balance on the line.
"Lately he's been blowing whistles, honking horns, throwing all kind of distractions just to get our mind more focused," junior guard Carlos Morris said. "That's how it's going to be in the game."
It's very difficult, obviously, to simulate a road environment and a high-stakes situation in practice. At the same time, Pitino doesn't want to make too much of the troubles that are likely mostly mental.
"If you bring it up a lot, guys start thinking about it," he said. "You don't want to bring too much light to it. I just want to make sure they're doing their routine, whether it's good, bad, whatever it is."
Said senior guard Andre Hollins: "The thing is not psyching yourself off on the free throws. That's the biggest thing -- keep doing what you've been doing, doing what you did to get here. All of us are good free-throw shooters but the numbers haven't shown that so far."
Minnesota ranks 309th in the nation in free-throw percentage, making just 63.9 percent of its shots in 20 games. In Big Ten play, the Gophers are hitting just 61.7 percent. At Nebraska on Tuesday, the Gophers made a season-low 47.4 percent.
"We're not as bad of a free-throw team as we're showing right now -- we actually can shoot free throws," Morris said. "But it's just like that right now, we're struggling right now."
Just how dramatic have Illinois' injuries been? After the loss of Aaron Cosby (eye), coach John Groce added a former team manager to the roster ahead of the team's road trip to Minnesota (1:15 Saturday, BTN). Read more here.
Minnesota ended its chance to start a winning streak after a loss at Nebraska, and now at 1-6, are the Gophers cooked? Is there anything to look forward to? Let's chat it out at noon.
Deflated footballs? That's yesterday's news.
But were those Nebraska Cornhuskers inspired by the New England Patriots?
Andre Hollins -- questioned about the team's 9-for-19 performance from the free-throw line in a 52-49 loss to the Huskers on Tuesday night -- cited something other than the team's mind-boggling inability to hit shots from the charity stripe, a yearlong problem.
"They were loose rims and [Nebraska uses] Adidas balls, that has something to do with it," Hollins said. "But we've still got to knock those down to finish out the play."
The senior guard stopped far short of accusing anyone of cheating. Although Nike and Anaconda Sports The Rock balls are the most popular, Adidas balls are not unusual or unexpected -- Nebraska is sponsored by Adidas. And even if the rims were a little more relaxed than usual, it would have also affected the Huskers, who shot just over 40 percent from the field and went 14-for-21 (66.7 percent) from the line.
But it was an odd comment considering Minnesota (12-8; 1-6 in the Big Ten) has struggled to hit free throws all season.
The Gophers' 63.9 percent free-throw overall shooting percentage ranks second-to-last in the Big Ten ahead of only Michigan State (63.2 percent). But in conference play, Minnesota has been even worse. The Spartans have shot an identical 63.2 so far while Minnesota has managed 61.2.
Hollins -- who was tied with Joey King for the best free-throw shooting percentage going into the game at 80 percent -- went 4-for-9 from the line, including 4-for-8 in the second half. He missed a pair that would have tied the game with 4:21 to go.
"Can't have that from the best free-throw shooter," he said.
Hollins also knocked down four three-pointers and an extra point in the first half for 13 points. He finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds -- his second-career double-double all but glossed over in the scuffle of a sixth loss in seven games.
Read my full game story on Minnesota's 52-49 loss at Nebraska on Tuesday night here.
Three quick observations before I try to find a late-night glass of something in this town:
It's kind of unbelievable. Of the Gophers' six conference losses, a stunning five of them have come by two possessions or fewer. Is Minnesota terrible? Is Minnesota on the verge of being great? It's all very mind-numbing, although I think most are leaning toward the former right now, especially after that performance. On the one hand, the Gophers have competed with EVERYONE except for Maryland. On the other, it's, like, really basic things that have held them back from winning those games: Missing free throws. Failing to get big rebounds. Turning over the ball. Good teams don't do these things. And they definitely don't do them over and over again. Minnesota doesn't seem to have the killer instinct it needs to shut Big Ten teams down.
Black is white; white is black. Remember when we were talking about Andre Hollins' slump being one of the prime reasons for the Gophers' 0-5 start? Tonight, he was just about the only thing Minnesota had going. Carlos Morris, Mo Walker, Nate Mason and DeAndre Mathieu -- four of the team's other top six scorers -- all combined to go just 5-for-27 from the field. But even Hollins' strong start (13 points in the first half), cooled in the second as he went 2-for-10 from the field and 4-for-8 from the free-throw line in the second. I'm not great at math, but that doesn't seem like enough scoring.
Please don't call this a "great defensive battle." How good of a defensive team does one have to be to hold another high-major college basketball team scoreless from the field for seven-plus minutes. And BOTH teams did it. Coach Richard Pitino, trying to spin what he can these days, sat down at the postgame podium and announced that his team had just played its best execution game of the year. But what about the unforced turnovers? What about the repeated fouling? What about the ten missed free throws, giving the Gophers their lowest percentage (47.4) from the charity stripe of the year? It sounded like a coach trying to prop up the confidence of his team when all else has failed -- and can you blame him? Make no mistake: this one was sloppy on both ends, but just a little bit sloppier on the Gophers' side.
Gas! The reward for covering tonight's game was our first glance at the mysterious international power forward, Gaston Diedhiou, another big piece of the future the Gophers hope will be better than the present. It's clear he's still learning the system and the plays, but the raw talent and potential -- and most of all, for a small Minnesota team, the size -- is evident. If the Gophers continue this slide, we'll only see more and more of him.
*Joey King had an ice pack wrapped around his back as he got on the team bus to head to the airport. The power forward got an elbow to his shoulder blade late in the second half.
Minnesota plays at Nebraska tonight at 7:30 p.m. CT. Watch on Big Ten Network or listen live on 1500-a.m.
Read: Can the Gophers, like last season's Nebraska, turn around a bad start and make the NCAA tournament? Minnesota is faced with a much different conference climate and isn't helped by its weak schedule.
Five keys to the Gophers starting a win streak vs. the Huskers:
Calling all shooters. Anyone who took a good look at Minnesota's second-half defense vs. Rutgers understands just how important it is for the Gophers' offense to get rolling. That, however, is not an easy assignment against Nebraska, owner of the tenth-ranked defensive efficiency in college basketball, according to analyst Ken Pomeroy's metrics. The Huskers limit good shots inside and out, and rank second in the league in three-point defense, holding opponents to just 29.1 percent of their attempts. But the Gophers have relied on the long ball to be competitive this season and need to continue to hit shots to keep their one post scorer (Mo Walker) from being doubled the whole time.
Forget history. The only thing standing between the Gophers and their brutal 0-5 slump to start the year is a win over a Rutgers team that was expected to man the league's basement this year. Plus, Minnesota still has won just two road games in coach Richard Pitino's tenure, a stat that is becoming more and more weighty with each road trip. The coach said in the last two games, the team was playing with the "weight of the world" on its shoulders. To move on and turn Saturday's win into a trend instead of an anomaly, the Gophers will need to let all of that go. Zero-and-six is egregious, but 1-5 isn't exactly uplifting either.
Pin Petteway. Have you heard the rumors about Nebraska star Terran Petteway struggling to live up to preseason expectations? Well that was some hype because although Petteway isn't a national player of the year candidate, he has improved his scoring (he's second in the Big Ten with 19.4 points per game), rebounding, assist and shooting percentages. He's still dangerous in the open court. He's still one of the most prolific pick-and-roll guys in basketball. And he's still the team's go-to in an exaggerated way. He takes 34.8 percent of his team's shots, a percentage that only 14 players nationwide better. Fellow junior Shavon Shields is his wing man, but behind those two, there aren't any reliable scorers. Petteway will be the major focus.
No more same old, same old. Rebounding. Free throws. These issues aren't going away. Rutgers is the only team ranked lower than Minnesota in average defensive rebounds, but even in that matchup, the Gophers got killed on the boards, 39-28. Yikes. Pitino, who has already implemented basic box out drills, said he's been using a bubble on the rim in practice lately, to force players to pursue the ball after every shot. He has to be running out of ideas. And again, on Saturday free throws were a concern. Minnesota went 11-for-17 from the stripe -- shooting less than 70 percent for the 12th time this year. Pitino has the biggest culprits shooting extras before and after practice. Will the Gophers ever reap the benefits of that?
Stay away from turnovers. A reporter pointed his recorder at DeAndre Mathieu and started the question. "Last year you guys went to Nebraska and..." The point guard didn't need to hear the rest. "...and I had seven turnovers? Yeah, yeah, yeah, it won't happen again." Mathieu didn't even remember it as bad as it was -- he actually had nine miscues, not seven. And that insufficiency at the helm of the team was the biggest culprit of the 82-78 loss that spoiled Malik Smith's eight three-pointer night. Well, expect Nebraska to swarm the ball handler once more. It won't always be Mathieu now -- Nate Mason took over the starting job two games ago -- but the Gophers will have to be tight with the ball all the way around if they want a chance because Nebraska will make every possession tough.
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