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
Sunday morning, when Minnesota boarded its charter bound for New York and Madison Square Garden, Austin Hollins had already shed his last signature sweat-drenched home jersey in the Williams Arena locker room.
When the Gophers return from the NIT finale -- whether that's after Tuesday's semifinal against Florida State or whether it's on Friday after the championship -- No. 20's career at Minnesota will be over.
The finality of that still hadn't sunk in as the senior stood around at Bierman Field Athletic Building before practice on Saturday.
"I try not to think about it too much," he said. "I think it will probably set in more once my career is completely over. We're still playing so I haven't thought about it a whole lot ... it's a weird feeling knowing that I'm not going to be playing in the Barn again. Definitely a weird feeling."
His exit could not have been more graceful.
In his last game at home, an 81-73 victory over Southern Miss, Hollins added a career-high 32 points to the 1,253 he had already collected during his four-year stopover. To that total, he added four assists and three turnovers.
Coach Richard Pitino pulled the Germantown, Tenn. native with five seconds on the clock.
Down in the locker room that night, Hollins had no plans to try to top such a moment. He didn't need a midnight solo shootaround to pay his respects to the raised court and musty rafters. The 5,444 fans that night gave him a better sendoff than he could have planned.
"I think that was the best way to say goodbye to it," he said, quietly.
It came amidst a season-ending surge that erased a mid-season slump from fans' minds in timely fashion.
In the last eight games, Hollins is averaging 15.9 points. After managing just 8.5 points a game -- and converting just 13 of 56 shots (23.2 percent) from three-point range in his previous 16, the senior finally perked. It started with a 27-point barrage at home against Iowa, on Feb 25. And with the exception of the Gophers' second-round loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament (five points, two rebounds), he's been hot ever since.
He's filled the stat sheets when they matter the most, playing a major role in keeping Minnesota's season alive.
Next season, Pitino will hope he can wring similar production from one of the incoming guards -- perhaps JUCO Carlos Morris. But the extra digits on the scoreboard are far from the only asset Hollins takes with him as he goes.
"We're going to miss him," Pitino said. "When he's rolling, he's really, really good. But just the intangible part of it. You know when he walks in the gym -- and not that any of our guys are really bad -- but you know he's always going to bring it, he's always going to be positive. Every single rep. Every single drill, he maximizes his potential. That's hard to replace.
"He's a great leader. Defensively he's very, very good. He gets a lot of steals, obviously. He's a calming influence. More than anything you just know that he's calm. Those are things you don't coach. I didn't get that out of him, that's his upbringing, his family and him as a person."
Since joining the Gophers in 2010, an unbending work ethich has marked the lanky wing's reputation, alongside that of his reliable nose for defense.
He's steadily improved each year, going from an average of 4.5 points his freshman year to 9.2 to 10.7 to 12.1 this year. He rebound averages have swelled from 1.5 to 2.8 to 3.2 to 5.1 this year.
His senior uptick comes even after a brutal mid-year sag.
"He was struggling," Pitino said. "It was just very simple. He wasn't making shots. He was cold. And I'm telling you, he just kept going with it. We went on the road ... he was just awful. He comes back the next day in practice. He could have easily tried to hide, and he was the loudest guy, the most vocal guy and he just keeps working and working. He's getting at them and that's the way it should be. For everybody else that watches him, he just deserves success."
Tuesday, he got a nice send-off as well.
In the time since it last met with Florida State's lengthy-and-rugged interior, Minnesota's frontcourt has gone from questionmark to highlight.
But now, the bolstered Gophers will likely be handicapped in the teams' rendezvous.
One day before Minnesota hopped on its charter to Manhattan -- the top-seeded Gophers will face 3-seed Florida State in the NIT semifinals in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night -- Elliott Eliason hobbled through Bierman Athletic Building with a boot on his left foot. The new hardware was acquired after falling and turning his ankle in Thursday's practice.
The starting big man did not participate in individual workouts on Friday or practice on Saturday and will be evaluated day to day, coach Richard Pitino said.
That leaves backup center Mo Walker, who is expected to start on Tuesday against Florida State, the third tallest team in the nation, according to kenpom.com. Eliason could potentially come off the bench.
When Minnesota played the Seminoles in the beginning of December, it was just the fourth game of the season for Walker, who missed the first six contests for violating university policy. Opposite Florida State, he finished with just four points and five rebounds.
Walker is hardly the same player now.
In the last six games, the Ontario native has averaged 10 points and six rebounds -- scoring 12 or more in three of those -- and in Tuesday's quarterfinal win over Southern Miss, he finished with 12 points, nine rebounds, four assists, three blocks, three steals and zero turnovers.
Facing Florida State's twin towers in Boris Bojanovsky (6-11) and Michael Ojo (7-3) by himself, however, is a much different task. Walker hasn't played more than 28 minutes all season, and is averaging just 17.7 per game.
He's added new post moves as the year has gone on and become a steady, and at times dominant scorer in the paint, but on the other end of the floor, he's been less than airtight. Rather, it's Eliason, through his offensive ups and downs, that has been the Gophers' critical defensive presence inside.
Mo is playing well, but Elliott is very, very important to our team as well," Pitino said. "We're not better without Elliott, so we've got to get him healthy. If he can't play full minutes, can he give us 10, 15 minutes. That's huge for us because we need a backup center, we can't play Mo for 40 minutes."
If Eliason isn't able to take the floor, the 6-9 Joey King would be the next man up in a very undersized lineup. Austin Hollins or Charles Buggs would play the four in that scenario.
Bojanovsky is averaging 5.9 points and 4.1 rebounds but has proven capable of big games. He ignited for 12 points and 12 rebounds against Maryland in the second round of the ACC tournament. The last outing vs. Minnesota was another one of those games. Bojanovsky had 11 points and four rebounds in 21 minutes in that one, and he and Ojo combined for 17 points and nine rebounds.
"I don't know how effective he's going to be," Pitino said of Eliason. "We'll see how he is moving forward. We've still got three days ... it's not as severe as like Andre's, but we've just got to be leery of it and watch it."
Sunday, we head to New York for the third time in two years. This is a great thing for me as Manhattan is one of my favorite places in the world that I've yet discovered. Understandably, it's not quite as exciting for some Gophers fans who might rather their season be over now, bounced from the Big Dance, than to never have been invited at all.
The NIT can be beneficial for a team like Minnesota -- one that saw the development of a few key returning players (Mo Walker and DeAndre Mathieu) as well as up-and-down performances from others that will return (Andre Hollins, Joey King, Elliott Eliason).
Still, while the energy surrounding the team's postseason life has certainly ramped up with the victory over Southern Miss on Tuesday, much of the focus of the NIT revolves around the future. One of the most common questions I get, actually, is how this experience will help Minnesota going forward. It's a slightly different conversation than that of the NCAAs, which is wrapped up in the now.
With that in mind, today's mailbag is particularly light and playful and forward-looking. Thanks for your questions. To submit a query for a future mailbag, tweet at me @AmeliaRayno with the hashtag #aMAILiaBAG.
To the questions:
@palmern2Twins: @AmeliaRayno What can we look forward to for next year with development of players? Especially anything to be excited about from NIT games.
What Gophers fans should be excited about more than anything is the simultaneous emergence of strong presences at point guard and center. Oddly, those were the two positions at the start of the year that folks thought Minnesota didn't really have. Now, DeAndre Mathieu and Mo Walker are the best pieces the Gophers boast heading into next year. Those two spots might be the most critical to find, too -- now Minnesota needs to identify the power forward that will best fit into that mix (whether it's on the roster/ committed/ still being recruited) and figure out which guard best compliments Andre Hollins.
As I wrote yesterday, I think Walker -- who has gone from hesitant to deadly with the ball in the post -- could make big leaps again next year. Mathieu, too. Minnesota can build around that.
@RandBallsStu: @AmeliaRayno can you recommend any good, thorough biographies on '20s-era bandleader Paul Whiteman? #aMAILiaBAG
@StanMpls: @AmeliaRayno any sport, any year - which team would you want to cover for one season?
I have a close tie here between the Impossible Dream Red Sox of 1967 and the 1975 World Series team.
The Impossible Dream came one year after the Red Sox finished ninth in the American League -- the young Carl Yazstremski debuted, promptly won the triple crown and led the charge to snatching the AL pennant. Unfortunately, that's also the same year Tony C. was drilled in the face and would never be the same again. That would have far tougher to watch.
In '75, the Sox were back there again with one of the more personality-driven bunches of Red Sox in club history (although I think 2004 and probably 2012 are up there too) with Yaz and Carlton Fisk and Jim Rice and Dwight Evans and the Spaceman anchoring the bunch. It was the year of the Game 6 Fisk homer that he waved fair to walk-off in the 11th inning. And in general, I've often thought I belonged in the 70's when newspapers and baseball were at their prime and whiskey was the only respectable option.
Why not 2004 you ask? Because I actually lived that one, and my memories of it are perfect.
@Leo_the_IV: @AmeliaRayno Prediction for the Gophers in B1G and getting to the NCAA tournament next year?
Well as I know nothing about three open spots that may or may not be filled for next season (and if they are, with whom), this is somewhat uneducated and off-the-cuff. But what do I do if not make somewhat uneducated and off-the-cuff predictions?
I say the Gophers finish 6th in the league. If all goes well and they see some notable development and find a power forward (and those are a lot of ifs), I could see Minnesota snatching a 10-12 seed in the NCAAs.
Why do you guys like me to predict this stuff right now when it means absolutely nothing anyway? Is it because you bookmark it just to show me I'm wrong come March 2015? You little punks.
@AaronGleeman: @AmeliaRayno Wanna get a drink at Rye sometime? #aMAILiaBAG
Absolutely, Gleeman, and let's add some corned beef to that plan of action.
@Frantzka: @AmeliaRayno #aMAiLiaBAG- I am surprised at how public the coach is on player criticisms, even ability. Typical coach talk?
There are rules to Minnesota coach Richard Pitino's player criticism. He only criticizes a player who has clearly done a lot of good things -- i.e., DeAndre Mathieu. Everyone sees the value of Mathieu, no one more than Pitino, so he's comfortable talking about when the point guard struggles. Same with Austin Hollins or Mo Walker. Etc.
You never heard him go off about, say Oto Osenieks, at least until the forward had acknowledged his knee issues (and then, he'd blame the injury for the struggles). He would never carry on about Maverick Ahanmisi's ball handling issues.
In other words, Pitino will publicly criticize guys he knows have more in them. In talking to the players, I think most of them like that bluntness. They always know where they stand with him.
@jmag21: @AmeliaRayno Will the Gophers ever get a good recruit? If Josh Martin grew a beard, would he qualify as a squatch? WHAT IS WRONG WITH ANDRE?
Easy, Jmag. I'm worried about you. One thing at a time, shall we?
a) Yes, I think they will.
c) I think it's a combination of things with Dre Hollins. He's said repeatedly that physically his ankle is 100 percent, but he does seem to have lost a little bit of that extra explosiveness when he's driving past people. How much of that is mental, I don't know, but he's having a hard time doing that now and so he's settling for a bunch of jump shots instead. The other factor here is that he simply struggles to get involved when he doesn't have the ball. That's been an issue all season, and it's not going to change next year with Mathieu around. I think moving to the shooting guard spot has really bothered Hollins this year.
@billfehlberg: @AmeliaRayno Can/will Buggs play small forward next year?
That spot should be pretty wide open next season. Buggs will get his chance along with Joey King, freshman Josh Martin and anyone else the Gophers look at in the spring.
Providing that the Gophers don't find and sign a dominant power forward from somewhere inside the JUCO woodworks, I imagine King would be the favorite based on how he's performed down the stretch. Pitino has always said King is the kind of stretch-4 option he envisions for his system, but the Drake transfer hasn't always played up to that. Buggs has great potential but he is still a long way away from reaching it.
@dickersribs: @AmeliaRayno what do you do after the NIT each year? Aside from whiskey.
Don't you mean after the postseason? Last year the Gophers actually did make the NCAAs if you'll remember.
I'll do quite a few projects on my beat over the summer -- traveling for some bigger stories on some of the players, more of the things I don't have time to do in the regular season. I'll do a lot of recruiting stuff and go to a few events. I'll help out with some baseball and do some off-beat stuff.
And, of course, I'll be traveling for fun. I work long hours seven days a week in the winter, so I take a lot of vacation in the summertime -- this year my plans include Los Angeles, Boston, Newport, North Carolina, Denver, France, Italy and Spain -- and also take the opportunity to enjoy the lakes and outdoor shows here.
@ddub44: @AmeliaRayno which purse do you like better, coach or Michael Kors? #aMAILiaBAG
You're asking a girl that carries around a canvas backpack and a glasses case-turned-wallet 90 percent of the time.
@jerkmo: @AmeliaRayno lets say Gopher basketball gets 20 win seasons in next 5 years. Who if any assistants would get head coaching gigs #aMAILiaBAG
Dan McHale is the most imminent candidate for job, but after five years I think Ben Johnson and Kimani Young are getting some attention as well.
@DWKrueger1: @AmeliaRayno does @RandBall hold it against you that you have more followers? #aMAILiaBAG
Yes, I think he does. I'm just relishing this time.
@BrettWintheiser: @AmeliaRayno more to lose by losing in a lesser post season tourney on a national stage or more to gain if we can win it?#aMAILiaBAG
More to gain for sure.
No one really pays all that much attention to the NIT until the championship game. That's just honest. If Minnesota loses in the semifinals that will absolutely not be discussed at all next year. If they make it to the title game or actually win it, it will be an immediate (annoying) storyline as soon as the 2014-15 Gophers start to show some life (a la this year's Iowa team).
But not a ton to lose at this point, really.
@slimmoggs: @AmeliaRayno how did the two recruits that left after Tubby was fired do this year at TT and Mich St?
Both Alex Foster (Texas Tech) and Alvin Ellis (Michigan State) have been used very sparingly this year. Foster averaged 7.3 minutes a game, didn't play in several, and posted 1.8 points and 1.5 rebounds a game. Ellis was in a similar role, averaging 1.9 points and 0.7 rebounds in 8.1 minutes a game, albeit on a very talented Michigan State team.
One of the best Minnesota stories of the year is almost being ignored right now.
With the top-seeded Gophers steadily advancing in the NIT -- they head to New York to play Florida State in the semifinals at 8 p.m. CT on Tuesday -- there has been plenty of talk about the seniors. There has been speculation about Andre Hollins, who has struggled. There has been commentary on coach Richard Pitino's handling of Year One.
Tuesday night, with Austin Hollins exploding for a new career-high 32 points, Mo Walker quietly put up one of the most ridiculous stat lines imaginable, as much as one can quietly do something like that.
Twelve points. Nine rebounds. Four assists. Three blocks. Three steals. Zero turnovers.
And the only reason the performance didn't warrant more turned heads is that most are no longer surprised to see Walker go off.
But think about that for a moment.
At the beginning of the season, there were questions about whether Walker would transfer because no one knew whether he could play in Pitino's system. For that matter, we didn't really know how he played at all. Over the previous few seasons, his soft touch around the basket and formidable size were obvious, but beyond that, there was a stack of unknowns. Even after the Ontario native shed 60 pounds, over the summer it seemed as though it would take him time to learn to play in his new body and to shake the rust.
My, how quickly he's developed.
Walker missed the first six games of the season for a violation of university policies, and then averaged 4.9 points and 3.2 rebounds through the first 13 games. Through the last 17, he's lifted those averages to 8.4 points and 5.2 rebounds a game. If you look only at the last six, those numbers jump to ten points and six rebounds a game.
That's exactly the type of steady and notable improvement a coach dreams about, especially from a wildcard player like Walker was at the season's start.
And perhaps the most encouraging news for Gophers fans is that he'll be around for another season. If this season was any hint of things to come, Walker has the ability to take great leaps again next year. Given what he's shown in the last few weeks, it seems he's only starting to touch his potential.
Five tidbits as a contemplate a plan of attack for New York.
1. If you missed it last night, 1-seed Florida State narrowly beat 3-seed Louisiana Tech in the NIT quarterfinals and now will play the Gophers in the semifinals New York on Tuesday at 8 p.m. CT (of course). Minnesota beat the Seminoles 71-61 back in early December but FSU looked uncharacteristically sluggish in that one, at Williams Arena. The Seminoles have the 30th best effective field goal defense in the nation, according to kenpom.com. Last night, they held Louisiana Tech to just a 7-for-25 showing from three-point range.
2. Minnesota is certainly excited about the opportunity to head to New York. My story from the Gophers' 81-73 win over Southern Miss that took them there.
Plus, Sweet Sixteen games start today. Who's the best team standing? Who has upset potential? My thoughts on the remaining field.
3. A fresh look at the NIT bracket. Heading to NY with Minnesota and Florida State will be SMU and Clemson. The Gophers would play one of those two teams in the championship game if they win on Tuesday.
4. Some video, from moments after the Gophers notched Tuesday's win that would send them to Madison Square Garden. Not a lot of dancers on this team but there are several who find themselves to be crooners.
5. Texas big man (2015) Elijah Thomas narrowed his list to ten yesterday, and the Gophers weren't on it. Richard Pitino and his staff had been going after Thomas hard since taking the job last spring. Thomas final ten schools: USC, Florida, Memphis, Texas, Oregon, Illinois, Ohio State, SMU, Oklahoma State and UNLV. If you put any stock into 247sports' Crystal Ball predictions, however, the Gophers chances at landing Seattle wing Djuan Piper -- who will make his decision in early April -- currently sit at 65 percent.
Bonus: The Big Ten released the Academic All-Big Ten awards yesterday. Minnesota was the only league school not recognized for men's basketball.
"Where has the time gone?" -- @AndreHollins
"Got the win last night ... planning on a NYC takeover." -- @BigggMo
"Down to ten! blessed to be in this position!" -- @EliCTMDThomas15
"#protip for Deandre. Don't try to dunk on a 7'3" guy next week." -- @FromTheBarn
"Just up late thinking about how frustrated I get when chipotle workers are stingey with chicken" -- @KingJoey_24
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