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.

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Dan McHale takes head coaching job at Eastern Kentucky

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: April 7, 2015 - 6:39 PM

Former Minnesota assistant Dan McHale has been hired as the head coach at Eastern Kentucky, he confirmed with the Star Tribune on Tuesday evening. 

ESPN's Jeff Goodman first reported the news.

McHale was hired as Gophers head coach Richard Pitino's top assistant in the spring of 2013 after working as an assistant under Kevin Willard at Seton Hall for the previous three years. The New Jersey native has roots in Kentucky, graduating from the University of Kentucky in 2001 and working first as a staff assistant and then a Director of Video Operations at the University of Louisville.

"I'm excited to take on a new challenge and represent a great university in Eastern Kentucky," McHale told the Star Tribune. "I'm just ready for the next part of my journey. I couldn't have done this without [Minnesota] coach [Richard] Pitino and everything we've done at University of Minnesota -- I'll miss Minnesota on daily basis, but this was the right decision for me and my family. Coach Pitino and his staff absolutely have his program going in the right direction."

The Colonels have been to the NCAA tournament three times since 2000, most recently losing to Kansas in their first game in 2014. Their NCAA tournament record is 0-8. Last season, they posted a 21-12 record but lost to Belmont by one in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. Eastern Kentucky won two games in the low-level Postseason Tournament before being ousted by Tennessee-Martin, also by one point.

McHale will head to the East Coast immediately for a press conference on Thursday.

Mason out eight weeks after thumb surgery

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: April 7, 2015 - 8:10 AM

As soon as it became clear last winter that Nate Mason's steady attack was for real, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino began touting the freshman's offseason.

The key for the young guard's development, he said, would be his desire and effectiveness in getting stronger and building on a game that will be recognized and defended in a new way next season. 

Mason now has eight weeks fewer to do so.

The rising sophomore injured his right thumb in an individual instruction last week, Pitino said Monday, and underwent surgery a couple of days ago. He's expected to miss two months.

"We weren't sure what was going to happen," Pitino said before downplaying the missed time. 

Mason averaged 9.8 points and a 2.56-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in 26.1 minutes a game last year, starting for eight of those. He is the second-highest returning scorer and is expected to be a critical part of the 2015-16 team.

During the next eight weeks, Pitino said Mason will be riding the stationery bike and doing cardio to stay in shape, as well as working on different things with his left hand while missing all the team workouts and individual instruction.  

That much lost time is never good for any player, especially one as fundamental to the Gophers' success as Mason. But Pitino pointed to Mason's steadiness, this time, as a reason to relax a little about the diagnosis.

"Everybody could use time to grow," he said, "but he had so much experience this regular season that missing two months won’t be catastrophic.

Pitino: Wisconsin "absolutely" looked like a national championship contender all year

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: April 6, 2015 - 12:46 PM

After watching a tenacious, versatile Kentucky team laden with mismatch nightmares dominate all season, it seemed like only the anti-establishment over-thinkers hungry for hate mail would be foolish enough pick against the Wildcats when it came to the favorite to win the national championship.

Minnesota coach Richard Pitino was not among those that called for Kentucky’s demise. But in the same conversation as the Wildcats? He’s always seen Wisconsin there, he said on Monday.

“Absolutely, no doubt about it,” he said when asked if he saw Wisconsin as a potential national championship team before the start of the tournament.

Wisconsin, of course, is the only one of those two teams in that conversation now – the Badgers face fellow 1-seed Duke at 8:15 CT in Indianapolis tonight after knocking off that formidable Kentucky team after all in a wild finish on Saturday night.

And anyone who’s been paying attention shouldn’t be too surprised. The Badgers kept almost their entire roster intact after last year’s Final Four team lost to Kentucky in the same game a season ago. And Wisconsin, who lost to Duke 80-70 on Dec. 3 on a night when the now-hot Sam Dekker struggled, dominated for most of the year. Armed with the nation's most efficient offense and a point guard -- Traevon Jackson -- that is regaining health, the Badgers are playing as well as they have all year.

Minnesota met the Badgers twice in a three-game span late in the season, getting Wisconsin as it was raring up for the postseason. The Gophers had downed their border rival in Pitino’s first season, 81-68 at home, after getting Naismith candidate Frank Kaminsky into foul trouble and on the bench early in the first half. This year, Minnesota wasn’t so lucky, falling 63-53 in Madison before taking a 76-63 loss on its home court.

“We were the only team last year to beat them by double digits and the reason we did it –when I looked back on the tape – we got Frank Kaminsky in foul trouble,” Pitino said. “That’s easier said than done because they don’t foul a whole lot. They put you in so many binds on the offensive end as well as on the defensive end. They don’t beat themselves. They’ve been there before. If I had to predict the two [most likely] national champions, it probably would have been Kentucky or Wisconsin. They deserve to be there. They’re well-coached, they’ve got the talent, they’ve got the experience, and it shows.”

Does that mean he likes the Big Ten champ (both in the regular season and the league tournament) and Minnesota rival to cut down the nets tonight? It sure sounds that way, even if Gophers fans everywhere will likely be rooting for Duke for the first time in their lives.

“The one thing I worry about for Wisconsin is that was such an emotional game that they went through with Kentucky, and Duke wasn’t really challenged,” Pitino said. “But the big wildcard is Duke beat Wisconsin at Wisconsin, so you know Wisconsin is going to have that revenge factor.”

Pitino says he's happy in Minnesota. Does that mean he won't leave? Not necessarily.

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: April 6, 2015 - 9:08 AM

After a few weeks of silence while his name was connected to three separate job openings – the Alabama situation appearing to be the only one with real legs, although St. John’s and Tennessee were also mentioned – Richard Pitino released a statement on Friday morning addressing the buzz.

It read:

“With regard to the reports tying me to other collegiate men’s coaching positions, let me simply say that I am very happy at the University of Minnesota. I am grateful to be coaching and living in such a great community that cares so much about this incredible university as well as its basketball program. I am also extremely fortunate to be working for one of the best athletic directors in the country in Norwood Teague. This state deserves great basketball program and we are working extremely hard to bring them one.”

This release probably served its purpose in that it calmed many fans worried about a quick Pitino exit. But just as notable as the words he wrote, perhaps, are the words he didn’t. And that makes sense. A program like Minnesota, especially in this era of coach-hopping, shouldn't just expect to keep its coaches without making serious efforts.

A few thoughts of my own after reading his:

1. Does this mean Pitino is definitely not leaving? No, it doesn’t. I do believe he’s genuinely happy in Minnesota, as he says, and the jump-and-rebuild, jump-and-rebuild process is not a fun one for coaches. While next year’s team will be young and raw and could struggle a lot, it will finally be his foundation: players recruited to his system; a culture firmly in place. At the same time, this is not a business of loyalty. If and when the right offer comes, Pitino may well leave and it could be before people think. In his release, he stopped short of saying he is staying or making any meaningful statement beyond the fact that he likes it here. To be clear, I don’t think Pitino plans on leaving. But at this stage, I’m also not sure he plans on not leaving.

2. Despite frustration from the local fanbase, Pitino’s value from a national perspective hasn’t gone down. Pitino was hired at Minnesota two years ago on the basis that he a) had a stellar resume as an assistant b) seemed to have a lot of upside and room to grow and c) the name doesn’t hurt. One thing he wasn’t hired for? His immaculate record as a head coach. He’d only coached one year in that role, after all, and although it was a solid one at Florida International, it hardly provided the sample size to determine anything. The reason places like Minnesota (or Alabama, for that matter) make hires like this is that they hope to get in on the ground floor. Once a young, trendy coach gets to be TOO hot a name, he becomes unhireable for the Minnesotas and the Alabamas of the world. He becomes a Shaka Smart or a Brad Stevens. But most coaches go through some early growing pains. Programs who look at Pitino’s body of work, in its context (shortened recruiting periods, in one of the toughest leagues in the country) and determine they see potential there, would be smart to try to lure him away before he wins his way to the next tier. Hires like this have big risk as well, of course, and Minnesota did take on some risk when hiring Pitino. It’s also probably the only way a place like Minnesota or Alabama gets a GREAT coach at this stage of the program (that or rain money). Pitino’s value hasn’t diminished at all because he’s still 32 and a third-year head coach. The upside and the potential is still there – he hasn’t fallen on his face, after all – even if the immediate results aren’t.

3. This was beneficial for Pitino until it wasn’t. In this latest round of job openings that were touched off with a couple of firings after the season, it made complete sense for Pitino to quietly remain in the background, and let the rumors fly. Let people go nuts. Let other athletic directors see his name over and over. Let his own fanbase get a little taste of only seeing the value of something once it’s threatened. Let his own administration get a little worried, as well. But enough is enough. The Gophers have three scholarships available, still, for the 2015 class and will likely need to fill at least a few of them. So many rumors in the news isn’t great for recruiting, and gets to be a distraction after a while. And assuming Pitino doesn’t find that right offer this summer, he’ll need some more players come fall.

4. There is a formula for keeping a head coach:

a) Winning tradition.

b) Facilities.

c) Fan support.

d) Raises.

Right now, Pitino only has one of the four at Minnesota. Although the administration is promising shovels in the ground for a basketball practice facility this fall, such projects can take years. A history of success? Many recruits weren’t even born the last time the Gophers made a notable NCAA tournament run, and even those stellar 90s years were stripped away. The fan support is a bit demanding, but true, so coaches here do have that going for them. As for raises? Pitino hasn’t gotten one of those yet; not after his NIT championship and not now, despite his name finding its way into so many job opening conversations. Frankly, until he receives a token of the university’s good faith in him, he shouldn’t make any promises to stay. Friday, he didn’t.


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