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

Gophers pregame: Minnesota aiming to put together two halves vs. Western Carolina

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: December 5, 2014 - 3:49 PM

Tonight's game vs. Western Carolina tips at 6 p.m. Watch online on ESPN3 (free for subscribers) and listen live on 1500-a.m.

--

Now begins a six-game home stretch full of sub-standard opponents. It might not be very exciting, but it provides the perfect chance for the Gophers to shore up some of the sloppiness that has dogged them through the early, and more challenging slate.

Five things to watch tonight:

Turnovers. Last time out, at Wake Forest, Minnesota compiled 20 miscues, many of them unforced, which tied a season high. The previous two games (13 turnovers vs. Georgia and 20 vs. St. John's) weren't exactly clean either. If the Gophers can get that number down, they might look like a different team. Of course, that's easier said than done as turnovers have been a long-standing issue for this crew, dating back to last year.

Two halves. Minnesota isn't playing high-major BCS teams anymore. Not only do the Gophers need to avoid a letdown, but they need to work on playing their best basketball for 40 minutes, something they haven't done much. That includes keeping the defensive intensity throughout, avoiding fouls and holding onto the ball. The Gophers have looked great at times -- NCAA tournament-worthy. At other times, they've looked like they might get killed once the league slate begins. "I am encouraged by the moments that we have had," coach Richard Pitino said. "ut the opponent does have to do with a lot of [the blown leads]. And we all want to play a perfect, forty-minute game. I think every coach you talk to would say they're not where they need to be."

Hot Dre Hollins? Last time out, the senior guard displayed a shooting touch we haven't seen in such extreme form from him in some time. Coach Richard Pitino has made it clear that Hollins' role is centered around defense first and foremost, and in that regard the Memphis guard has had a slew of strong games. "Everybody knows I can score," Hollins said after the Wake Forest win. "So I'm really looking to showcase other facets of my game. My defense, passing." Sure everyone knows, Dre. But doesn't hurt to remind them sometimes, right? Right. Hard to lose when he's hitting shots that way. We'll see if the touch carries over to tonight.

Improvement on the boards. Rebounding hasn't exactly been a strength for Minnesota early on -- and the Gophers still rank 235th nationally in offensive reboundind. But vs. Wake Forest, Minnesota managed to out-rebound its opponent by seven boards. That trend needs to continue if the Gophers are going to survive in the Big Ten.

James Sinclair. Western Carolina is capable of getting hot from beyond the arc, and if that happens, keeping Sinclair -- a pesky guard who can impact on both ends of the floor -- will be important to a strong win. Sinclair is averaging 18.9 points and 5.5 rebounds through eight games.

PREDICTION: Minnesota 78, WCU 59

Opening Tipoff: Minnesota vs. Western Carolina tonight

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: December 5, 2014 - 10:04 AM

The DEETS. Tonight's game vs. Western Carolina tips at 6 p.m. Watch online (free for subscribers) on ESPN3, and listen live on 1500-a.m.

The READING. In today's Star Tribune: for all the talk about the intriguing newcomers, this is still the Dres' team. Previewing both teams here

The BUZZ. Last time out, senior guard Andre Hollins scored 27 points on seven three-pointers. "I told him, you need to give your [teammates] and your head coach a lot of credit for those," coach Richard Pitino said. "Because certainly they made great plays to get him open and I gave him a couple of looks off some plays, so I said 'You need to point at me next time you make some of those shots.' ...Now he made the shots, but Joey King made some great passes, Mo made a great pass to him, and we need to find him, that's important."

Hollins grinned. "Coach isn't out there playing," he said. "I let my teammate take most of the credit. But I guess he called a few plays and got me some open shots."

The NUMBERS. Minnesota tied a season high with 20 turnovers on Tuesday. All but two of those came from the starting five. It was, however, the Gophers' best free-throw performance of the year by far. Minnesota made 12-of-14 attempts from the line for 85.7 percent. Previously, the Gophers hadn't shot better than 60.6 percent all year. The Gophers' 12 three-pointers were the most of the Pitino era at Minnesota.

The PLAYER. Perhaps as impressive as anything poised freshman Nate Mason has shown is his tight ball handling. The new guard is averaging just 1.87 turnovers per 40 minutes, the best of the guards by far (Hollins is averaging 4.09; Deandre Mathieu 2.41; Carlos Morris 2.85).

Pitino on bringing marquee games to Williams Arena: "I think our fans deserve it, and we're looking into it"

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: December 4, 2014 - 2:49 PM

Starting tomorrow, Minnesota will be playing six more non-conference home games leading up to the Big Ten slate.

You're forgiven if you don't recognize many names. 

The Gophers just finished playing the likes of Louisville, St. John's, Georgia and Wake Forest. Now the feel shifts -- to teams with directions and dashes in the names.

"That's four BCS schools in a matter of two week and then you come home," coach Richard Pitino said. "I think human nature is to say we've got a month to catch our breath. That's not the case, that's not going to be the approach...We can lose to anybody, and I think our guys know that."

Still, if fans are yawning, they can rest assured that Pitino isn't content with the status quo.

Does he hope to bring a marquee game or to to Williams Arena down the line?

"Yes," he said at media access on Thursday, "I think that our fans deserve it, and we're looking into it."

He isn't without his concerns. Teams often play in a challenging November tournament -- so far, going ahead to next year's Puerto Rico Tipoff, Pitino's tournaments at Minnesota were scheduled before he arrived. Then, in addition to the rotating ACC/ Big East challenge each year, next year will bring the Gavitt Tipoff games, a similar challenge between the Big East and the Big Ten in honor of the late Dave Gavitt, founder of Big East basketball.

Whether Minnesota will play at home or on the road in those matchups remains to be seen.

"So you don't want to put yourself into position where you're playing on the road at an ACC opponent, on the road at a Big East opponent and then a home-and-home," Pitino said. "That is difficult."

When all of that is over, Minnesota has to play an 18-game conference schedule in the Big Ten, perennially one of the nation's strongest leagues. Most programs, especially those in such challenging conferences, offset the heavy slate with some lighter games in the early season. Last year, the Gophers had a top-10 strength of schedule, but missed the NCAA tournament.

Still, Pitino sees the desire for big-name games in Minneapolis -- and he wants to make it a reality.

"We have a big list [of schools]," he said. "We're open to anything, really."

--

A little tidbit, passed along by my pal Jeff Greer at the Louisville Courier Journal:

Louisville coach Rick Pitino had his own game to play in the ACC/ Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night, but leading up to tipoff, he had another game on his mind: his son, Richard, of course, was coaching vs. Wake Forest.

"I was watching that whole game, yelling at the screen and making notes," the elder Pitino said. "I made literally two pages of notes and [Richard] just listens every time and says, 'Is that it Dad?' He had to go, so now I have two pages of notes. He won by 15 and I have two pages of notes."

Pitino on bringing marquee games to Williams Arena: "I think our fans deserve it, and we're looking into it"

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: December 4, 2014 - 2:49 PM

Starting tomorrow, Minnesota will be playing six more non-conference home games leading up to the Big Ten slate.

You're forgiven if you don't recognize many names. 

The Gophers just finished playing the likes of Louisville, St. John's, Georgia and Wake Forest. Now the feel shifts -- to teams with directions and dashes in the names.

"That's four BCS schools in a matter of two week and then you come home," coach Richard Pitino said. "I think human nature is to say we've got a month to catch our breath. That's not the case, that's not going to be the approach...We can lose to anybody, and I think our guys know that."

Still, if fans are yawning, they can rest assured that Pitino isn't content with the status quo.

Does he hope to bring a marquee game or to to Williams Arena down the line?

"Yes," he said at media access on Thursday, "I think that our fans deserve it, and we're looking into it."

He isn't without his concerns. Teams often play in a challenging November tournament -- so far, going ahead to next year's Puerto Rico Tipoff, Pitino's tournaments at Minnesota were scheduled before he arrived. Then, in addition to the rotating ACC/ Big East challenge each year, next year will bring the Gavitt Tipoff games, a similar challenge between the Big East and the Big Ten in honor of the late Dave Gavitt, founder of Big East basketball.

Whether Minnesota will play at home or on the road in those matchups remains to be seen.

"So you don't want to put yourself into position where you're playing on the road at an ACC opponent, on the road at a Big East opponent and then a home-and-home," Pitino said. "That is difficult."

When all of that is over, Minnesota has to play an 18-game conference schedule in the Big Ten, perennially one of the nation's strongest leagues. Most programs, especially those in such challenging conferences, offset the heavy slate with some lighter games in the early season. Last year, the Gophers had a top-10 strength of schedule, but missed the NCAA tournament.

Still, Pitino sees the desire for big-name games in Minneapolis -- and he wants to make it a reality.

"We have a big list [of schools]," he said. "We're open to anything, really."

--

A little tidbit, passed along by my pal Jeff Greer at the Louisville Courier Journal:

Louisville coach Rick Pitino had his own game to play in the ACC/ Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night, but leading up to tipoff, he had another game on his mind: his son, Richard, of course, was coaching vs. Wake Forest.

"I was watching that whole game, yelling at the screen and making notes," the elder Pitino said. "I made literally two pages of notes and [Richard] just listens every time and says, 'Is that it Dad?' He had to go, so now I have two pages of notes. He won by 15 and I have two pages of notes."

Overtime: Now things start to get back to normal

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: December 3, 2014 - 11:53 AM

Now, things get back to normal, somewhat.

This hasn't been the most normal start to the season for Minnesota, a program that normally eases into the season with a few half-hearted opponents and then embarks on one or two road trips.

This season featured three road excursions, starting with the first game of the year, vs. Louisville in Puerto Rico -- the buildup of which made the whole event feel like much more than one game.

"We played a really, really tough two and a half first weeks," Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. "The travel down to Puerto Rico, that wasn't easy on our team -- stopping in Louisville, going through all those things. That was a lot emotionally on our guys, travel-wise."

Then there was the three-game week at home. Then a lengthy trip to New York for two games in the NIT Season Tipoff. Finally, this year's ACC/ Big Ten challenge, at Wake Forest.

"That's a long trip," Pitino said of the NIT Tipoff. "I mean, we were there from Tuesday to Saturday -- in the hotel; my family; everybody's families.

"It's just too much. I was so excited to not have my kids on this trip and sleep a little bit. It was a lot for everybody. Now we've gotten through that and we can go back home."

The Gophers don't get to rest quite yet. After returning home late after Tuesday night's 84-69win at Wake Forest, Minnesota will suit up again Friday, for the first of three games in six days, against Western Carolina. When those three games are in the archives, the Gophers will have an eight-day layoff between games for final exams. 

QUOTEABLE

Carlos Morris, on playing the power forward for the first time, in a four-guard lineup when Minnesota adjusted to Wake Forest's small look: "I just kind of felt out of place a little bit but I just had to do whatever coach Pitino told me to do."
Said Pitino: I didn't enjoy that lineup. I'm looking at it going what am I doing."

Andre Hollins, on what the team took away from three games on the road: "I think we just learned mental toughness, that we have to bring our own energy. I think that was one of the things that held us back last year -- our road losses. We let a few slip away and those games where, I don't want to say we were better but we had a good game plan and we thought we should have won the game. We just didn't execute. So I think we're really learning how to execute and take teams out."

Pitino, on holding Wake Forest Devin Thomas to four field goal attempts (and four points): "We wanted to do a lot of things -- trap him, dig hard. We knew he's a really good player and a main focal point of their team. So we talked a lot about taking him out of the game offensively, swarming him every time he touched the ball and I thought our guys did a great job of that."

TWEETED

"I'll eat a little crow for the halftime pessimism. A blowout over any BCS team on the road is great. Would love some continuity, however." -- @zipsofakron

"If this team can put together a complete game, watch out." -- @FromTheBarn

"This has been a special 7 3pt make game for Andre Hollins so far because the screens and ball movement of his teammates have been special too." -- @RyanJamesMN

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