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
Mo Walker has a different kind of battle this year.
Last offseason, the Minnesota center was one of two players who stayed on campus all summer, eschewing the chance to go home for extra time on the treadmill.
He changed his diet -- avoiding sauces and fried food and eating after 8 p.m. And he changed his lifestyle. He would walk over to the recreation center late at night after workouts and summer classes and tutoring were over. He started taking long walks with his girlfriend. Strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown, meanwhile, banned him from going on any dates that involved food.
"I bring it up twice a week now," Brown said. "Just laughing with him about the stuff he put himself through to get to this point."
Yes, the major hurdles have been crossed. Sixty pounds lighter and infinitely more mobile, Walker became a relevant -- even dominant -- piece of the rotation again for the first time since his freshman season. But due to the constant conditioning of last summer, the Ontario native didn't have much time to work on getting stronger, and tougher in the paint.
Now he does.
The Gophers hope in the next three months Walker will be able to find the consistency he lacked a year ago. The center averaged 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds last year, including 9.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in his final 19 games, but was prone to foul trouble and at times lost his aggressiveness.
"There's no reason he shouldn't be one of the best big men in the league if not a first-team All Big Ten guy next year," assistant Dan McHale said. "But it's up to him. He's too nice of a guy. He's too nice off the court. He needs to show that mean streak, and he knows it."
Walker had the ball knocked out of his hands in pivotal moments on several occasions; other times, he simply didn't seem tough enough to compete against the Big Ten's brawny frontcourts.
In the weight room, he's working on building muscle -- even though he's not putting on a ton of weight, Brown said his strength levels are going up weekly. On the floor, the skilled post man is focusing on his defense, while adding an outside shot.
Whether he or fellow senior center Elliott Eliason will start is still very much up in the air. The two bring very different skill sets to the table. But even if Walker doesn't get the nod right away, his ceiling has grown even higher this season, the team believes.
"He showed flashes last year of a guy that could be one of the more dominant big guys in the league," McHale said. "It's his senior year, and he's got the chance to be really good."
Ever since he was signed, JUCO transfer Carlos Morris has been the favorite to replace former senior Austin Hollins in the Minnesota starting lineup.
But not so fast, assistant coach Dan McHale said.
Yes, Morris has by all accounts been very impressive in the Gophers' summer workouts.
But so has another guard: Daquein McNeil.
The sophomore, who made headlines with his strong defensive play last year, originally asked Richard Pitino to redshirt his first year. The head coach told him no, believing he could help the team right away.
That instinct turned out to be right on point, with McNeil becoming one of the pleasant surprise in the heart of the Big Ten schedule -- during which the Gophers, as a team, struggled.
McNeil averaged 1.6 points and 1.1 rebounds in 9.7 minutes a game but became somewhat of a defensive specialist while playing multiple positions.
"We just threw him out there," McHale said. "We said 'Play the point guard, play the backup [shooting guard], play the [small forward]. He's such a utility guard ... and he didn't care, he knew all the plays from three different spots. For a freshman, that's pretty good."
McNeil's offensive ability was far behind that of his defense -- he might be the best current defender on the team now that Austin Hollins has left -- but the Gophers staff sees that changing. The Baltimore native has gained muscle and lost weight, McHale said, a combination that should help McNeil use his athleticism more effectively. Gophers fans already saw a playmaker capable getting in the lane and finding guys in transition and in the halfcourt. Now, he's dunking in practice; he's absorbing contact when he goes to the rim. He's gotten stronger and sturdier, aspects that many young prospects underrate until their first season in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten, McHale noted. And McNeil has been working steadily on improving his jumpshot. A year ago, the guard connected on 29.4 percent of his attempts from three-point range and 37.5 percent from the field.
"That always was his knock was that he's not a great outside shooter," McHale said. "He's really worked hard on it."
The improvement to this point is great enough to signal that Morris' starting spot is far from locked down. Regardless of what results from the battle of the lineup opening, the Gophers believe this could be a breakout season for McNeil.
"He's worked hard to where it's definitely going to be a challenge [for Morris]," McHale said. "He showed flashes last year ... He's the type of guy that could take the biggest jump."
At last, Andre Hollins is feeling back to his old self.
Six months after initially spraining his left ankle, the senior guard has a spring in his step once more. Read more about his transformation in my story in Wednesday's Star Tribune, here.
I caught up with Hollins on several other topics when I talked with him. I thought I'd share them here:
In his previous three college offseasons, Hollins has put on a bit of weight in the summer, mass he then has partly worked off once the seasons gets going. This summer, he's avoiding that extra fluctuation, he said. So far he has stayed right around 195.
"I'm very happy, he said. "I'm cut, I'm getting stronger, I'm maintaining my weight, getting pretty much 100 percent healthy."
Hollins started a few new habits in the wake of his ankle injury. He practices yoga now, and stretches more. He takes ice baths. And, he said, he's started cooking.
"I make pasta, I put a chicken in the oven, heat up vegetables," Hollins said. "Nothing too extravagant."
The team has just two hours a week with the coaches this time of year. Between those workouts -- Minnesota has had just one full practice, to this point -- the Gophers get together for pickup games at Bierman Athletic building.
This season, coach Richard Pitino challenged the team to make those weekend sessions more competitive by making a wager: the losing squad has to go through an extra "special" workout with strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown.
"It's whatever he comes up with," said Hollins of Brown's workouts, with a laugh. "Extra punishment ... We're definitely a competitive group, and that's what it takes. You have to hate to lose."
Assistant coach Dan McHale said recently that the coaches wanted Hollins' to focus on improving his explosiveness this summer. Another area the senior is keying in on is his ball control.
Hollins said after watching film, he's noticed he has the tendency to stand up too high while he's dribbling. During these offseason workouts, he's been working on keeping his stance and center of gravity low as he moves. Mastering that, he believes, will take his driving ability and his defensive quickness to the next level.
"It's a mental thing," he said. "Every day when I come in I have to tell myself, stay low, defensively and offensively, the low man wins ... It's hard sometimes because you get tired you automatically want to stand up."
While Hollins feels light years better than he did at the end of the season, his ankle still isn't technically healed. In fact, it's still swollen. The senior estimated that his left foot is still about 10 percent bigger than his right. At this point, of course, it fits comfortably in his shoe, and doesn't keep him up at night.
"It's one of those injuries that really sticks with you, probably about five years," he said. "It still bugs me a little bit but it's nothing that really hampers me or slows me down anymore. It's still just a lingering thing that's there."
The toughest part about getting hurt, Hollins said, was realizing that his body didn't react the way it normally did. Hollins would try to drive to the hoop and find that he was about a step slower than he thought he was, making the difference between him scooting past his defender and losing the opening.
What's more, the guard was accustomed to pushing off on his left -- injured -- foot for drives and layups. He began leading with the right foot instead when he returned last winter. Initially, it was extremely awkward, but slowly it has become more comfortable. As the summer began and the tenderness lingered, Hollins continue to lead with his right foot. He plans to keep the adjustment indefinitely.
"I've kind of switched now," he said.
Since JUCO transfer Carlos Morris and freshman guard Nate Mason have arrived on campus, Hollins has taken somewhat of a mentor role with the newcomers. The three of them, along with point guard DeAndre Mathieu, all work out in a group together.
"This is my fourth year here, fourth in the Big Ten, playing against some of the best competition in the nation," Hollins said. "I'm just trying to give them my experience, tell them things here and there -- what's going to work, what isn't going to work ... Little things like that so when it comes in practice, they'll already be prepared, they've already heard it. The quicker we learn it, the better we'll get."
This season, things will be different for DeAndre Mathieu. That much is certain.
Last year at this time, no one knew what to expect from the journeyman point guard who started out as a walk-on at Morehead State before transferring to a junior in middle-of-nowhere, Arizona, and then Minnesota.
That's no longer the case.
After a breakout season in which Mathieu solidified himself as the Gophers' most valuable player, carrying the team to an NIT championship, the rising senior won't be sneaking up on anyone any longer. Rest assured the 5-foot-9 Mathieu's name will be highlighted on every scouting report.
"He looks like this young, baby-faced kid," Minnesota assistant coach Dan McHale said. "He wasn't on anyone's radar, and now he is."
Mathieu knows that simply maintaining the same numbers he did a year ago will be a challenge. He'll be defended differently, and trapped more often, as he began to see at the end of the year last year.
His solution? Get stronger, and better.
The Gophers staff said Mathieu has focused on three major aspects over the summer:
1. Packing on the muscle. Coach Richard Pitino said on Tuesday that Mathieu has added about 13 pounds this summer, which makes for 22 total pounds added since arriving in Minnesota last August, meaning he's gone from 156 to 178 in two summers. The goal, strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown said, has always been for Mathieu to wind up at 180.
When the coaches return from recruiting trips, they marvel that Mathieu looks different, bigger. Each time. Another college coach that was visiting Minnesota earlier this spring saw Mathieu working out and dropped his jaw. The Knoxville native was tossing around 80-pound dumbbells as though they were styrofoam.
This guy is your is your point guard? he said, incredulously.
In terms of pure mass, Mathieu is probably the smallest player on the team. But he's stacked his compact frame with nothing but muscle.
"He looks like Mike Tyson," Brown said of Mathieu. "Pound-for-pound he's our strongest kid."
2. Shooting. It's tough to criticize the scoring ability of a guard who averaged 12 points a game in his first Big Ten season to go along with an average of 4.2 assists and 2.7 rebounds.
But if there's one area Mathieu could be more comfortable, it's with his shooting. He managed an impressive 48.9 percent from three-point range and 51.1 percent from the field, but often seemed hesitant to let it fly if he couldn't barrel to the rim -- clearly his preferred method of scoring.
Finding an offensive balance is going to be even more important with teams likely to pack the paint and try to take away the drive more often. With that in mind, Mathieu has been staying after workouts to get up dozens of extra three-pointers, off the dribble and off the catch.
"You need a confident player," McHale said. "When he gets going, he's a good shooter, he doesn't give himself enough credit for it ... he's taking pride in it."
3. Avoiding frustration.
Earlier this summer, McHale sat Mathieu down in his office for a little private film session. One by one the guard watched clips of himself getting upset, showing his emotions, looking dejected or angry on the court.
"Coach, I didn't even realize," he told McHale.
All year long, Pitino would get after Mathieu for letting his frustrations impact his play. Now that the guard has seen it himself, he's making a change in demeanor a focus.
"Everyone is relying on him," McHale said. "At times he didn't realize, he needs to be more of an upbeat and positive guy."
This fall, Mathieu's role will only grow. In his first year, he quickly gained the respect of his teammates. Around the Ohio State win in January, when Mathieu tallied 13 points along with five assists and four rebounds, the coaches began to realize what they had. Now, the dedication he's showing are making those qualities shine even more.
"He's embracing success and running with it," McHale said.
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino stopped short of committing fully to the NIT Season Tip-off -- in which the team is currently scheduled to compete -- in a press conference on Tuesday, responding "I hope not" when asked whether there was any scenario in which the program would bow out.
The annual November tournament typically includes 16 teams, but was only able to secure eight this season, which could significantly change the format.
I wrote more about that for tomorrow's paper, here, along with some new tidbits about the Gophers season opener against Papa Pitino and Louisville in Puerto Rico.
A few other notes:
*International freshmen Bakary Konate and Gaston Diediou are still not on campus yet. Pitino reiterated that the NCAA has cleared the pair, and the team isn't concerned. He expects them to both be in Minneapolis by the start of fall practices.
*Redshirt sophomore Charles Buggs will likely not be playing to contact until the team returns for fall practices in September, Pitino said. Buggs had a minor knee surgery in April to clear out eroding cartilage. He has been cleared for non-contact activities.
*JUCO transfer Carlos Morris has put on the most beneficial weight of any player, Pitino said, with a grand total of 17 pounds since arriving on campus in May. The team wanted him to add bulk and strength quickly. "Thanks to Shabazz Napier [the former Connecticut player whose comments about going to bed hungry helped to spur new NCAA rules regarding team meals], he's eating like 20 times a day," Pitino said. "We just keep feeding him." DeAndre Mathieu, meanwhile, has added 13 pounds. Pitino said and Joey King, pound-for-pound, are the team's strongest players right now.
*Pitino on DeAndre Mathieu's recent fatherhood: "Whenever I see him, I say 'Boy, you're lucky because his baby's not here, his baby is in Kentucky. So I'm like fresh off of no sleep and he's well rested. We joke about it. He's excited about it. He's a mature kid to begin with. That was a great experience for him, I know he's very excited about it."
*Pitino likely told the truth but didn't make many Gophers fans in the process when he named rival Wisconsin the best team in the league in the upcoming season. The Badgers are pretty stacked, returning all but one player from a squad that advanced to the Final Four last spring. "Wisconsin was obviously phenomenal last year and they're only going to get better," Pitino said. "They were playing their best basketball towards the end. They have everybody back but one guys so I would think they've got to be the favorite going into the season."
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