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
Minnesota plays at Nebraska tonight at 7:30 p.m. CT. Watch on Big Ten Network or listen live on 1500-a.m.
Read: Can the Gophers, like last season's Nebraska, turn around a bad start and make the NCAA tournament? Minnesota is faced with a much different conference climate and isn't helped by its weak schedule.
Still waiting for Gaston
For several games now, coach Richard Pitino has been threatening to play international power forward Gaston Diedhiou. Still, it hasn't happened.
Saturday, the coach said the reason for the Senegal native's absence in the win over Rutgers is a new leg injury.
In Friday's practice, Diedhiou tweaked his Iliotibial band, Pitino said, and a day later, it hadn't improved much. The big man hobbled through warmups and trainer Ben Feld recommended he be held out once more.
At this point, only 12 regular-season games remain. Is Pitino starting to think about redshirting Diedhiou to avoid wasting most of a year?
The coach still isn't ruling the possibility out, but he still sounds inclined to play Diedhiou if at all possible. Currently, Minnesota ranks second to last in the league in defensive rebounds. Starting power forward Joey King and backup Charles Buggs are both averaging exactly 1.7 boards in conference play.
Considering the Gophers' other limitations, the deficit on the glass is a big concern. Diedhiou would offer a bigger, bulkier and more physical presence in the paint than either of the other two options, and his rebounding ceiling is a lot greater as well.
"Part of our rebounding problem is, it's not that it's a lack of effort from Joey and Buggs," Pitino said "They're just not real big guys and they're not naturally great rebounders, so we've got to get [Diedhiou] rolling too."
What's more, the coach said he isn't sure a redshirt would be particularly helpful for Diedhiou, a 21-year-old freshman.
"He's old," Pitino said. "So how beneficial is it going to be for a 25, 26-year-old [to have an extra year]? ... I don't have an answer to the question, to be honest, it's just hard right now. But we've got to prepare him to be able to play [at Nebraska] and then we'll see."
On the slow track
Bakary Konate played in his first game since the Big Ten opener at Purdue on Saturday when Pitino inserted the freshman center in the first half -- ahead of senior backup center Elliott Eliason -- and played him a total of 17 minutes in the win over Rutgers. Konate connected on a jumper on his only field goal attempt, and had one rebound, one assist and three fouls.
Although the Mali native's opportunities have been limited, Pitino said he's satisfied with Konate's development thus far.
"We knew he'd be raw bringing him in," Pitino said. "I think that's just the reality of the situation, we're just going to have to develop big guys. With Bakary it's almost like less is more. The less mistakes he makes, the more he'll play. And I don't think he made a whole lot of mistakes last game except for fouling -- that was probably the biggest issue and he's got to get better at that, he fouls a lot. He made a nice little pick-and-pop jumpshot. He got fouled a lot too, because he's such a big target in the post. I think he's on schedule with where we thought he'd be."
Duck, duck, Goose
Elliason, meanwhile, played only four minutes in Saturday's victory, his fewest in Big Ten play.
Pitino said the demotion, at least for one game, was due partly to Eliason's struggles (just one point and four rebounds in the previous two games and has a 42.4 free-throw percentage on the year) and partly to his dedication to developing Konate on the fly. The latter will likely be Minnesota's starting center next season with both Eliason and starter Mo Walker graduating.
"I thought Elliott had a great attitude on the bench," Pitino said. "Doesn't mean he's not going to play anymore. Every guy is valuable."
Read my full story on Minnesota's 89-80 win over Rutgers at Williams Arena on Saturday here.
Three quick observations after the Gophers picked up their first conference win:
Finally. In the last four years I've been covering Minnesota hoops, this is the most any Gophers team has needed a win. At first glance this fall, a game against Rutgers at home looked like a pencil-in W. But after Minnesota started 0-5 and the Scarlett Knights showed some scrap vs. Wisconsin (a win) and at Maryland (a near loss), the outlook changed quite a bit. This squad was limping, so just putting one game in the victory column is a big deal. Afterward, the locker room was lively again; the players acted as though they had just crawled out from underneath an arena- sized brick. Whether the Gophers can make a run in the days ahead is another story. But for this team to make any kind of improvements in a season that will likely be harder than most thought all the way around, a spark of hope and a few moments of 'fun' on the court again were necessary.
Andre Hollins is back. It's been a long time coming for the senior guard, and the in between had clearly been weighing on him, even though coach Richard Pitino said one of the reasons he stuck by his veteran in the starting lineup was because his struggles didn't show in practice. Hollins had scored in double digits just twice in the previous seven games, and was shooting less than 40 percent from the field. Pitino could talk about his defense and intangibles all he wanted -- a slump like that from the team's best shooter is always going to have a big impact. The Memphis native made a statement almost instantly that all of that would be changing. Hollins scored a three for the Gophers' first bucket of the game and kept going until he hit 31 -- the second-highest total of his career and the most he's scored since his sophomore season. He came off screens, shot seven threes (tying a career-high), dunked in traffic for the first time ever (Turf toe? Doesn't seem to be a thing) and even played to contact a little bit, something we've seen him shy away from lately. Minnesota will need this version if it's going to make a run. Where would the Gophers have been in this game if Hollins hadn't had a monster game? Not looking so positive.
Still a long ways to go. The Gophers' killer instinct is still a little weak, a fact they made clear in the second half when the foot-over-throat move was just simply lacking. Rutgers charged back several times and Minnesota hit enough big shots to go blow-for-blow with its scrappy opponent, but the defensive pressure was lax and the execution in the half court still needs a lot of work. The Gophers' only strong post defender, Elliott Eliason, got just four minutes of playing time and his struggles, combined with a dose of reality in the 0-5 start, probably has Pitino eying the future -- and Bakary Konate -- a little more. That means Mo Walker will have to get better and the guards will have to be sharper. Minnesota's toughness is still suspect. Rebounding problems -- after losing the boards battle 39-28 -- are not going away. And the free throw concerns? Still there despite Pitino forcing every culprit to shoot extras after practice. Minnesota went 11-for-17 (64.7 percent on Saturday). A run in the stretch ahead and a respectable finish to the season is possible (I said respectable, not NCAA tournament), but the Gophers will have to improve the areas that have plagued them if they want to seize those goals.
Richard Pitino's present isn't exactly full of posies these days, but the future, anyway, just got a little brighter.
Forward Michael Hurt (2016) committed to Pitino and Minnesota late Friday night, a source confirmed on Saturday morning.
Pat Ruff of the Rochester Post-Bulletin first reported the news.
Hurt, a 6-foot-6 Rochester John Marshall junior, is in Rivals' top-150 players for that class. Both Pitino and assistant coach Ben Johnson watched Hurt play vs. Fairbault on Friday night. Afterward, Hurt made his commitment.
"I talk to Coach Johnson a lot, he’s been the main one recruiting me, and I’ve talked to Coach Pitino a lot more since they offered me," Hurt told Rivals' Ryan James. "I really like Coach Pitino’s style. People compare it a lot to (Florida coach) Billy Donovan’s up-tempo style."
Hurt also had offers from Nebraska, Northwestern, Northern Iowa and Princeton among others.
Minnesota's game vs. Rutgers at Williams Arena today tips at 11 a.m. Watch it on Big Ten Network or listen live on 1500-AM.
Five things to watch as the Gophers try to avoid matching an 0-6 league start from ten years ago:
Don't look now, but is Rutgers maybe kind of not bad? The Scarlet Knights hosted No. 8 Wisconsin -- who is otherwise unbeaten in conference play -- this week and took the unequivocal league favorite -- down. Just a fluke, right, even without Frank Kaminsky in the lineup? Not so fast. Straight off that victory, Rutgers barreled into College Park and scared the No. 14 Terrapins with a late second-half lead. Maybe these Knights are starting to learn something about success? What's more, Rutgers hasn't lost two in a row all season ... and the Knights are coming off a loss.
Nate again. Last time out, coach Richard Pitino flipped over the starting lineup gratuitously -- replacing DeAndre Mathieu, Carlos Morris and Mo Walker with Nate Mason, Charles Buggs and Elliott Eliason. The Gophers should get mostly back to normal on Saturday, but expect freshman wizard Mason to stay in the starting five, over struggling senior Mathieu. In experiment No. 1, Mason scored 17 points, had four rebounds, four assists, zero turnovers and three steals. Not bad.
Freebies. What coach likes to spend time on the very, very basics like boxing out and shooting free throws in the middle of January? Probably not any of them, at least at this level. But that's exactly what Pitino is being forced to do with the Gophers shooting 64.7 percent front the stripe in conference play -- second worst among Big Ten teams. The problem was only highlighted against Iowa, when both Mason and Eliason missed the front ends of a pair of 1-and-1s. Starting Thursday, Pitino had every player shooting less than 70 percent staying after and putting up extras. We'll see if the extra time worked.
Joey, shoot! Power forward Joey King is shooting 38.9 percent from three-point range and it's kind of his specialty, so when he twice hesitated to shoot after shot-faking and getting open late in the Ohio State game -- the last of those resulting in a costly turnover -- Pitino sat him down. "I told him to shoot the ball -- that's what you're good at," he said. "When he's by the bench and he catches it I yell 'Shoot it' because he's shot faking and nothing's happening. Everyone is just flying all over the place and nothing is ever really happening from it." King has been better in the last two games but the Gophers need him to stay trigger happy to maintain his worth on the floor.
Forget luck. Yes, it probably has seemed as though the ball, the officials -- with the exception of the one that accidentally triggered the clock vs Iowa -- and the basketball gods hate Minnesota a little bit right now. But that kind of mentality, the one that had Minnesota stunned and teary-eyed in the locker room after that Iowa loss, probably is counterproductive to actually getting better. Which the Gophers clearly need to do if they're going to salvage this season. "The tendency is to feel sorry for yourselves and forget about improving on what is causing you to lose," Pitino said. "We're close but we've got to keep plugging along obviously."
Nate Mason will start again when Minnesota faces Rutgers on Saturday (11:00 a.m. Big Ten Network) and for the foreseeable future, coach Richard Pitino told the media on Friday.
"He needs to be on the court," he said. "He made some really talented plays in [Tuesday's loss to Iowa]. Certainly, we'll roll with him there."
The freshman stepped in for senior point guard DeAndre Mathieu on Tuesday, when Pitino shook up the starting lineup, also giving the nod to Charles Buggs and Elliott Eliason over Carlos Morris and Mo Walker.
On Friday, Pitino said he planned to revert back to his original starting five, with one exception: Mathieu -- who has started since the beginning of last season -- will continue to ride the pine and Mason, who finished with 17 points, four assists, zero turnovers and three steals vs. Iowa, will get his chance.
In the last five games, Mathieu has struggled, averaging 7.6 points and watching his lofty non-conference assist-to-turnover ratio invert as 20 turnovers have piled up to just 13 assists. Mason, meanwhile, has just one fewer assist (12) and 17 fewer turnovers (3) while averaging 9.2 points and totaling the same number of steals (7) in 5.4 fewer minutes a game.
"I don't really care, coming off the bench and starting," Mason said. "I just want to play and help us win, that's all I worry about."
Pitino said he felt starting Mason on Tuesday "lit a fire" under the freshman. Otherwise, the coach sounded mixed on the results of his shake up.
"I subbed in a minute and a half or two minutes into the game so I don't know if it really made a whole lot of difference," he said of the three switches. "I do know Nate needs to play more. Joey, I liked the minutes he played and Charles I thought was pretty decent as well. So we need to develop those guys."
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