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 from the 87-73 loss to Arkansas here.
What a difference a day can make.
Yesterday, the Gophers looked plenty capable, playing No. 8 Syracuse tightly and battling despite a limited frontcourt.
Today was supposed to be a day of great improvement, with center Mo Walker returning to the lineup, but the Gophers didn't show it, instead producing one of their worst defensive performances of the year, particularly in the second half, when Arkansas shot 60.7 percent from the field, while the Gophers mustered just 31.3 percent of their shots. The Razorbacks abused Minnesota's interior, even with an extra body to pack the paint at all times. Arkansas dunked on the Gophers seven times, a number that felt even greater as the damage was being wrought. For a second consecutive game, Minnesota had serious issues with ballhandling, coughing up 16 turnovers after losing the ball 19 times on Monday.
Perhaps most embarassing was that Arkansas did to the Gophers exactly what they try to do to each other in practices. Coming in, it was clear that both teams like to get up and down, score in transition and press the opponent to exhaustion. But the Hogs simply did it better.
By the end, Minnesota simply looked exhausted and discouraged, their body language telling the story postgame, after the second-round loss in the Maui Invitational.
The Gophers play DII host Chaminade tomorrow in the last place game at 1:30 CT.
"Arkansas beat us at our own game," Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. "They were tougher. They were scappier ... and just our intensity, I thought we just backed down from them."
Other notes from the 87-73 loss.
The Gophers played impressively on Monday, going head-to-head with Syracuse and battling to make what could have been a blowout instead a tough, close game.
Now, the challenge will be to maintain the intensity after something of a heartbreaking loss (even if it was a moral victory).
They will need to keep the intensity against an Arkansas team that likes to play similarly to the Gophers: with an uptempo pace and a heavy reliance on the defensive press.
The best news for the Gophers is that Mo Walker returns today after sitting for six games, suspended for violating university policy. His return will bring a much-needed extra body in the paint and ease some of the pressure from Elliott Eliason, the only real rim protector (and thus, foul liability) with Walker out.
Some other notes on today's game:
Read my story on the 75-67 loss to Syracuse here.
In the end, there are plenty of shortcomings to be seen.
The Gophers played sloppy -- very sloppy at times -- and failed to execute down the stretch.
But those breakdowns fade in comparison to all the things Minnesota did right, even if they wound up losing. After all, this was never a game they were expected to make so close.
Despite a banged-up and short-handed frontcourt that found itself dangerously in foul trouble, the Gophers showed a lot of grit inside. Center Elliott Eliason (six points, nine rebounds) provided an incredibly valuable presence in the post, blocking five shots and playing overall very solid interior defense. Joey King (nine points, five rebounds) disregarded a fractured jaw and played with great energy and toughness, once getting fouled hard and falling on his hurt jaw but remaining in the game.
Each player -- whose roles have only grown with the absence of center Mo Walker, who was suspended for the first six games for violating university policy -- was hampered by foul trouble, with the pair both picking up their fourth about midway through the second half. Eliason's value was never more obvious than when the big man was on the bench.
"We tried to drive at the big guy," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "We wanted to get him in foul trouble, and when he was out, we made a ten-point run. He's a big difference-maker when he's not in there. When he came back in, we couldn't get to the basket the couple times we had before."
Walker returns tomorrow, when the Gophers face Arkansas in the loser's bracket at 1 p.m. CT.
"When Mo gets back, that's going to be a big help for us," Pitino said.
A few other notes from today's loss:
Syracuse big man CJ Fair sustained a sizeable cut under his right eye in a scary play on Monday that was never even ruled a foul. The 6-8 senior went up for a slam over a few Gophers defenders and came down with a bloodied cheek after Austin Hollins appeared to catch him with an elbow. After a trainer examined Fair – who was taken to a local hospital to receive stitches after the game – a bandage was applied to the wound and the forward returned to the game, finishing with 16 points and 10 rebounds.“I cut down a lane and I went up for the dunk and I felt like I hit my face. Then as I can down I seen blood on my hand and from there I knew it was something bad.”
The Gophers were within two with two minutes remaining when Austin Hollins blocked Tyler Ennis' shot at the rim. But the big gift was spoiled when Smith threw the pass way ahead of the team, turning the ball over and giving the Orange possession once more. Syracuse went on an 8-2 run from there.
Minnesota showed it has gotten much better from a year ago at attacking a defensive zone. The Gophers executed well against Syracuse's 2-3 zone, using high-low action to help collapse the defense and hitting a high percentage from three-point range, particularly in the second half, when the Gophers were 6-for-11 from behind the arc. "Coach prepared us for it," Andre Hollins said. "We had some lapses where the game got stagnant and I think we handled that well."
If Richmond was the Gophers’ first big test, today against No. 9 Syracuse represents the first MASSIVE test.
In the wise words of Elliott Eliason: “It’s a little more than a test, man, that’s a great team, year-in and year-out. It’s always fun to measure yourself against someone like that. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
So Eliason has already mastered island-speak and the Gophers are keeping it real.
Luckily for the big man, he will have a little more help in the frontcourt than he did on Thursday vs. Wofford. Expect power forward Joey King to play after practicing the last two days. There is still some pain associated with the injury, but as Pitino has pointed out, King is one of the toughest players on the team.
Will we know everything about Minnesota afterward? No, certainly not. But the game will provide a good measuring stick against one of the nation’s best. If it’s a blowout, well, lots of work to be done before January rolls around. If they keep it close or (gasp) win, well, there’s still lots of work to be done before January rolls around. But of course, it would be a major accomplishment.
The Gophers have done a pretty good job of remaining steady through the early non-conference slate (with the minor exception of the Coastal Carolina game), a trait that would serve them well here, where they will be playing three games in three days no matter what.
Some notes on Syracuse:
Aloha kakahiaka, hau’oli Lapule!
I’ve made it to Maui and am already Googling greetings (“Good morning, happy Sunday,” of course).
Mahalo for all of your questions. I hope some of you have made it to the island as well. All of the tournament’s teams have availability today, so I’ll pass along any notes later. For now, let’s get on to the questions.
Seems like the #Gophers really enjoy the triple. Are they too 3-centric early on? Or is it just how the roster's built?
I think generally, when a team is doing well at something and winning, it’s hard to argue that it’s too much of a focus. So far, the Gophers are connecting on 34.1 percent from beyond the arc – which is good, because certainly Minnesota plans for perimeter shooting to be a big part of their game plan.
The other half of this is that with the frontcourt built the way it is – not a lot of depth or bulk there – the Gophers are going to HAVE to shoot more than they would, say, if they still had a Trevor Mbakwe-type rooting the post to throw the ball into. Is that ideal? No, and it makes them susceptible to a bad shooting night. But right now, it’s who they have to be, and they’re doing it well.
Have [the Gophers] shown us anything to get excited about? It's early but is progress being seen with the players and new system?
Sure, I think so. The win at Richmond should excite Gophers fans, because it was a tough environment for a team that is still coming together. The win against Wofford on Thursday should make Gophers feel good because that contest was the very definition of a trap game, and Minnesota didn’t fall in – it came to play. And generally, while I still maintain that this year’s Gophers team has its limits, I think what coach Richard Pitino has done already is impressive. He has taken the roster that he inherited/quickly put together and gotten the most out of it. The Gophers are functioning as a cohesive group, rather than the collection of parts they looked like at times last year. They’ve transformed their bodies and their attitudes, and you’re seeing the on-court confidence lead to on-court results. Several players, like Oto Osenieks and Elliott Eliason have improved dramatically. If you’re a Gophers fan and you’re not happy with where this team is at right now, you’re not paying attention.
Has it been determined if MN will be a participant in any of the holiday tourneys next year?
Nothing is set yet … but there are rumblings about the Paradise Jam (St. Thomas) …
Seems like the crowds have been leaner at the barn so far. Heard anything from students while you're around campus on why?
It’s always kind of sparce this time of year. Attendance so far is actually up a little bit from a year ago, when the Gophers drew 42,648 through four games. This year, they’ve hit 43,895 so far.
If no king for Syracuse any chance Pitino lets Mo free a game early, or are we just screwed in the frontcourt?
First of all, it’s not up to him. It’s university policy, not team policy. And even if it were, there’s no chance he would do that.
Still early, but after a handful of games are there any changes to your predictions for the final #big10 rankings? #aMAILiaBAG
I haven’t watched enough non-Gophers in the conference to make the call about any other teams. But I still think 9th or maybe 8th is pretty reasonable for Minnesota. Pitino has gotten the team to really buy in and respond to their shortcomings, but there are still shortcomings. Come January, the size of the frontcourt is going to be a concern.
Don't you think brakes need to be pumped on Oto? At least until we see what he has during B1G play?
We’re not in the heart of the Big Ten schedule yet, if that’s what you mean. But I’m not sure what you mean by “pump the brakes.” Curb your enthusiasm? Sure – if you’re concerned about getting overly excited and then overly disappointed when Osenieks fails to produce the same results in conference play. But that goes for everyone, right? Osenieks isn’t suddenly competing for the Naismith, but it is pretty obvious that he’s improved. Just look at his shooting percentage from three-point range last year. Just look at his confidence on the court. Watch how much more involved in both the offense and the defense than he was a year ago, and how aggressive he is in doing the little things. Osenieks will take his lumps in the Big Ten, but we might as well give the forward his due – he’s earned it.
How would you evaluate Buggs and Wally's play [on Thursday]? Moving forward, do you see them making any significant contributions?
I thought Ellenson played pretty well – he finished with seven points, two rebounds, an assist and a steal, and helping to keep the Gophers rolling near the end of the game. Wofford wasn’t the strongest opponent, mind you, but if Ellenson keeps doing that, he’ll get a bigger role in the rotation. Buggs had a pair of blocks, which was good, but he needs to be stronger in the paint. Both of those guys need to get better defensively.
If the Gophers win the National Championship, who play Pitino in the movie? My money is Gene Wilder
Oh boy. I’m not sure I should even answer this one.
I'm wondering about this new defense. I like the energy, and the potential for each basket to turn into a scoring run, after all basketball is a game of scoring runs. But so far we have seen that it has tended to end scoring runs, and lead to quick 3-point buckets for the opposing teams. I know it may take time to develop and have guys work together for traps and steals, but can this really work going forward? Especially up against well coached teams like Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Time will tell. This is a new defense for the Gophers so it will take some time. The Gophers have certainly been effective with the press at points and have been able to shake teams out of their comfort zone. Certainly, it will need to get tighter, especially heading into the conference slate, where opponents will be faster and craftier, and could pose a hell-like situation for the very undersized frontcourt if the Gophers aren’t able to scramble out of the press quick enough when teams are beating it.
Also, is every Brian/Bryan with a ‘W’ last name ‘B-dub?’ It’s a rule, right?
I have a couple questions for mailbag, 1, Have Richard and Wally made-up (and the nature of their disagreement), and 2, What effect do you think it will have on Henry's recruitment. Thanks.
Yes, Richard and Wally have made up, which is why you see the latter playing. As long as something else doesn’t happen, I don’t think it should affect the Gophers’ recruitment of Henry Ellenson (No. 42 nationally in 2015, according to Rivals.com).
Hang 10. Michigan looks better than last year. Stauskas drove, stuffed. Explosive! 12-pt deficit kapoof! Surprised? #aMAILiabag
I have not managed to surf yet. (Give me time, I just got here!)
Not surprised that the Wolverines look a bit better than last year, at least early on. Once the conference slate rolls around, Michigan might miss guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., but they have a host of other stars, including Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, each with a year of experience behind them. I anticipate both of them taking another big step this season, and keeping the Wolverines among the elite.
Who's our best perimeter defender this season?
Austin Hollins, still, when he’s out there. Andre Hollins is looking a lot better defensively as well.
Do you see the team turning heads and making the big dance? Or are we a year or two away?
I still think that’s a tough challenge given the personnel. No one wants to hear this, I know, but a good run in the NIT would be an accomplishment.
Silly question but is the press ever able to fly with the team?
Some radio journos do, but not the print media. We all have to fend for ourselves, which means less cushy flights, more connections and more accidental overnight layovers in Cincinnati (see: my return trip from Richmond).
It wouldn’t really be possible anyway. Often, the team heads back right after a game, while I still have hours of work to do.
It seems like Pitino's the anti-Tubby [Smith, former Gophers coach] when it comes to praising players and building confidence. Fair assessment?
They’re just different coaches, although players have already commented on how positive Pitino is. The new coach isn’t constantly praising his players – he has been very blunt both on his blog and with the media about different individuals’ struggles and weaknesses – but I think the major difference is the players all know where they stand with Pitino at all times. He tells them what they’re doing wrong, and then commends them when they make steps to fixing it. Smith praised his players too, of course, but it seems like Pitino has been a little more consistent in his feedback.
Who has the best chance at being drafted at this time? #aMAILiaBAG
I don’t think anyone will go in next year’s draft if that’s what you mean. But right now, Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins are the only players close to NBA material, and even they have more work to do.
That’s not to say that others can’t get there, just that they aren’t there yet.
Mail bag : The way EE has been playing us encouraging and Mo will be fine too. What's scary is the 4 spot come BIG PLAY, do you see this as a huge weakness for the Gophers?
It’s an area that will need to be overcome, yeah, as has been the theme all fall. Both of those guys – Osenieks and Joey King – have exceeded my expectations for them early, but they still represent a very small and thin corps at that position. It will be a challenge to battle with the other physical 4s in the league, for sure.
Jarvis Johnson on U's radar? What will it take to get a four- or five star recruit?
Jarvis Johnson is more than on the U’s radar. Pitino offered the 2015 point guard almost immediately after taking the job at Minnesota and the coaching staff loves him. He’d be a great fit for the system and a good option for down the road with Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu using up their eligibility the year before.
#aMAILiaBAG The Gopher bigs have looked great, but isn't Syracuse the first team with front court size, so first real test?
Definitely, especially since the Gophers will still be shorthanded. Mo Walker will still have one game remaining in his six-game suspension and Joey King may or may not play (fractured jaw). The Orange has been very physical inside and will create a big challenge for Elliott Eliason and whoever else is playing defense at the 4-spot. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing the Gophers do a fair amount of zone.
BONUS BIGFOOT QUESTIONS:
Any #bigfoot type of creatures in Hawaii? #elchupacabra_hawaii_style?
I thought long and hard about this the other night, and learned from Wikipedia that before the Polynesians came over, there were only bugs, birds, seals and bats on the islands. Anything else that’s there now was brought over. So unless the Polynesians had a bigfoot stowaway, I don’t think there are any dwelling there. Also, an island would seem a very dangerous spot for bigfoot. As the area is commercialized, there becomes a smaller and smaller amount of space to hide. Yikes!
Stu … I think you’re onto something. Cain has returned and molded himself into television host so he can prove he’s not the real bigfoot. Or … something?
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