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
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!
Read my game story on the 83-68 win over Chaminade here.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino said he called former Butler and current Celtics coach Brad Stevens before the Maui Invitational to ask for his friend's advice on travel (Butler was in Maui last season).
Stevens' response, according to Pitino:
"Get in as early as possible and get out as quickly as possible and I would probably schedule a Division III team first game back."
Said Pitino: "Well, we don't have that choice. We're playing Florida State."
As the Gophers head back from beautiful Hawaii, fresh off a near upset by a Division II squad, the challenges don't stop. Wednesday provided both a kick-in-the-pants and a jolt of confidence after Minnesota, which played horrendously in long stretches, eventually woke up and executed very well down the stretch to take the victory.
But the Gophers have got to learn from this game if they want to stay competitive in the long season ahead. To be certain, there are unavoidable shortcomings on this team, one of them being the frontcourt size and depth, but the effort -- which was suspect through most of the first and the first half of the second -- is not reliant on great talent. That is the one thing Minnesota has no excuse for lacking.
And it lacked for long stretches on Wednesday. The Gophers looked tired at the outset and generally disinterested until the final 11 minutes or so. That Minnesota finished on a 28-7 run is notable -- and at that point their offense was finally clicking and the defensive press looked sharp -- but if the opponent had not been Chaminade, well, a comeback of that caliber wouldn't have been so easy.
The Gophers head back to Minneapolis tonight, and will rest tomorrow before getting back at it in preparation for the Seminoles on Tuesday.
Asked what the team needs to learn from Wednesday's game, Pitino said "Probably that anybody can beat us on any given night. That just showed us. If mentally-wise we don't bring it every game, we could lose."
Other notes from today's 83-68 win:
Perhaps yesterday's brutal loss to Arkansas was good in some small way -- to help properly set expectations for a team that is still somewhat in transition.
The Gophesr don't have a bruising frontcourt. They don't have depth there, or great athleticism. They don't have a ton of experience.
All of that showed on Tuesday and will represent challenges for the Gophers likely to struggle to overcome all season.The Big Ten will be more lilke the last two days that it will be like anything Minnesota had faced prior this season.
Now, the Gophers should have an opportunity to at least leave the island on a positive note, with a matchup against DII host Chaminade in the battle to not take last place in the Maui Invitational.
But it's not quite that easy.
The probelm with playing Chaminade is two-fold:
*You don't get many points for dominating a DII team, even on the road
*What if they lose? After all, Chaminade has upset teams in this tournament in the past and the Arkansas blowout would look much tamer against a last-day loss today.
Five things to watch as the Gophers play their second consecutive morning game.
1. Mindset -- The Gophers looked exhausted and defeated after the loss to Arkansas. It's important for them to regroup today and not take Chaminade for granted. Coming in with a lack of focus -- as they did yesterday --- and starting slow could spell trouble. The Silverswords have played two ranked teams so far, and are probably welcoming the opportunity to catch Minnesota off-guard.
2. Mo Walker -- How long will it take to brush off the rust? The center wasn't very effective at all yesterday, recording one point, one rebound and not doing much in the way of defense. The frontcourt needs the boost that he can bring.
3. Christophe Varidel and Lee Bailey -- Each are capable of huge games. Each are capable of being corked. Can the Gophers contain both? Varidel exploded for 42 points against Baylor, but had just eight against Chaminade. Bailey was quiet in the first game, scoring seven points, but adding seven rebounds and five assists, but went off for 29 points against Gonzaga.
4. Malik Smith -- The senior guard has looked noticeably better in the last two games, getting more involved offensively and hitting some very clutch shots. The Gophers needed that spark, which dimmed in the second half, to continue yesterday and they need it again today.
5. Turnovers -- Here we go again? For the first five games, it looked as though the Gophers' ballhandling issues had been harnessed, but here they are again. In the last two games, Minnesota has turned the ball over 19 and 16 times, respectively. A lot of those were careless and unforced. It's not a good habit to get into -- can the Gophers start to right the ship again today?
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