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
Read my game story on the 71-61 win over Florida State here.
Hey, maybe size doesn't matter after all.
The Gophers, at least, proved capable of overcoming a lack of it for one night -- going up against the much bigger Florida State and stifling the Seminoles defensively, coming out with a 71-61 victory.
After a tough three games in three days in Maui, coming back with a win over the hearty Seminoles on Tuesday was huge for the Gophers. Minnesota returned to Williams Arena in a strong way, capturing by far their biggest win of the season over a team that beat VCU and lost to No. 22 Michigan and No. 15 Florida by a combined three points.
"We knew coming in that this was going to be a big win for us," DeAndre Mathieu said. "We watch ESPN, we see them play and everybody talking about how good they are, how big they are so it’s a big win. Our first big win. We let Syracuse get off. It just feels good to get a quality win over a good team."
Mathieu's toughness at the end of the game was a big part of the Gophers pulling out what turned out to be a close game at the end after Minnesota's early second half 12-point lead shriveled away. With 1:48 to go the tiny guard landed a layup in heavy traffic and amongst the Seminoles bigs to stretch the Gophers' lead to six and push them to the finish line.
In a game that wasn't always pretty -- with 52 fouls called on the two teams combined and the contest drawing out to nearly 2.5 hours -- the Gophers took care of business. They overcame a lax shooting night (34 percent from the field) with stout defense, speeding up the Seminoles and forcing Florida State into 17 turnovers with their press while containing 7-footers Boris Bojanovsky and Michael Ojo inside.
The Gophers were out-rebounded 36-32, a differential that's not too shabby considering Minnesota was smaller at almost every position.
"We controlled the game," Andre Hollins said. "We don’t let size count us out. We went to Syracuse, we were a couple plays away from pulling that game out. We just have to compete – that’s our style of basketball. Just being tough, boxing out, rebounding."
Other notes from the win:
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."
With Maui in the rearview, there is no shortage of intriguing scheduling ahead.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino said on Monday that Minnesota is confirmed for next season's preseason tournament: the preseason NIT, which is held at Madison Square Garden in New York City,
"If you’re going to recruit the east coast and we want to recruit nationally, we believe we can -- given an opportunity to play in Madison Square Garden, that’s as cool an arena as you’re ever going to be in," Pitino said. "Makes you feel like you’re a pro when you’re in there."
Pitino also wrote in his Gophers blog that a Nov. 14, 2014 game against Louisville in Puerto Rico is almost a done deal, and that the staff is "99 percent sure it will happen but we are just ironing out some details."
The game would be held on a military hangar on a base there, ideally.
The Minnesota coach had expressed some hesitation in scheduling an immediate game against his father, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, and the perennially tough Cardinals because he didn't love the idea of jumping into a competitive relationship with his dad.
But when ESPN called the elder Pitino and suggested the game, the Gophers coach ultimately decided -- particular after Michigan State AD Mark Hollis visited the staff and shared his thoughts on scheduling -- that it was a move that would be good for the program's exposure.
"I just thought about it and I thought if we want to get to where we’re going, it’s all about elevating this program with everything we do," Pitino said. "It’s not just about beating Florida State tomorrow. We want to get to the level of Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana, and I think one of those things you’ve got to do to do that is you’ve got to be innovative with your scheduling. [Michigan State coach] Tom Izzo has been a master of that .He’s always been really good at it. I think this is a great way to get our brand out there, to get people talking about Minnesota."
That doesn't mean Pitino is feeling completely at ease with the idea of his Gophers starting out with one of the best squads in college basketball, however.
"I’m hoping they have a bad practice before and they stink," Pitino said. "They’re not always good early, so that’s my hope is that they drop a few early. Anytime you play a team like Louisville, you’ve got to understand what you’re going against. So as much as people are going to make it about Father- Son, when that game starts, it’s all about between the lines. We’ve got a lot of guys back, so I thought ‘You know what? This would be a good time to play them.’"
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.
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