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 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."
The University of Minnesota basketball staff was excited about this summer for redshirt sophomore Charles Buggs.
After showing flashes of offensive brilliance in his first year playing, Buggs appeared poised to take the next step toward realizing his lofty potential. The offseason would be big for that development.
Instead, the forward hit a minor roadblock: knee surgery.
Buggs underwent a procedure in April to clear out cartilage that had been building up in his right knee. It was a minor operation, McHale said, but the rehabilitation has slowed down his summer workouts a bit.
"He's one guy that could have really benefitted from a full summer, but you can't control it," McHale said. "It's still early. He's still going to have July and August in getting ready for next year."
As of the end of last week, Buggs still hadn't been permitted to do anything that involves contact in practice. He's been doing some light shooting during his rehab, McHale said, along with lifting and riding the stationery bike.
"We've not going to rush him back," the assistant coach said. "We've just got to make sure his knee is 100 percent."
One of the Gophers' major goals for Buggs this summer was to add bulk and muscle. He's done that -- managing to add about 15 pounds despite the setback -- and the team is happy with where his weight is now. But beyond the physical transformation, Buggs -- who remains raw after playing just 6.7 minutes a game last year and redshirting the year before -- could have benefitted from the extra situational exercises and defensive drills.
Last season, the Texas native averaged 1.7 points and 1.1 rebounds a game, but had a couple of big highlights in the conference slate. Against Iowa, coach Richard Pitino subbed in Buggs for just his third Big Ten appearance ever. The forward promptly caught fire from the perimeter, sinking three shots from behind the arc, and tallying 13 points in all.
Up until that point, Buggs had played no more than two minutes in a Big Ten game. That day, he was given 19, and looked like one of the team's most exciting offensive players.
Consistency, though, along with finding that effectiveness on the other end of the court, have been Buggs' greatest struggles. He averaged 6.7 minutes a game for the rest of the year, and managed to score just 0.6 points a game in that span, while often looking like a liability on defense.
"He's the type of kid that showed flashes," McHale said. "If the light bulb goes on, he's an extremely talented player. He's a good kid, and that's what you want. He's a pleasure to be around. If he can reach his full potential, I mean, wow. It would definitely be a big benefit for us."
The team is hoping he'll still have a chance to show such growth next year. McHale said if Buggs can improve his ball handling over the summer, the coaches might consider playing him some at small forward as well as power forward, which would give him more opportunities to get on the floor.
"He's an athletic combo forward," McHale said. Everyone could see what he did against Iowa. When he just plays and doesn't think and doesn't worry about his mistakes and just focuses on what he can do to help us win, the kid can really help us."
These days, University of Minnesota basketball coaches see lot of a familiar and welcome sight:
Andre Hollins' smile.
After the guard's limping finish to the season, it's the only sign assistant coach Dan McHale needs to tell him things are back to normal.
"I think he's the Andre Hollins that the fans remember from a while ago right now," McHale said. "He has a bounce-back in his game, he's healthy."
This summer, the senior combo guard has been the first player to walk in the Bierman gym in the mornings; the last to leave after practice. He's taken on a bigger leadership role in an attempt to put to use all of the energy he's exuding daily.
It's a far state from last year's end.
Hollins averaged 16.2 points a game in his first 19, a strong start. Then, against Wisconsin at home, Hollins went up for a jumpshot in the first five seconds and landed on a defender's foot when he came down.
The ensuing ankle sprain was given the adjective "severe." The pictures that Hollins tweeted revealed a joint so swollen it more closely resembled an eggplant than a foot.
Officially, he missed just two games. Practically, he looked absent for most of the remainder of the season.
"I don't think people realized, I don't think we really realized -- because he's such such a good kid -- how much the injury affected him," McHale said. "I think it was evident a little bit with his game in the second part of the year, after the Wisconsin game. But he's the type of kid that puts the team first, guts it out."
That Hollins did. With the Gophers having lost consecutive games without their veteran guard and desperately fighting to stay in the race for the NCAA tournament, Hollins returned to join the team at Purdue.
"He has no business playing, and he didn't say boo," McHale said. "He said 'Tell me what I need to do.' That's his best attribute. All he cares about is winning. And he was hurting. He was hurting bad. We were in the middle of it, on the bubble and everything, and the kid never said I'm not playing."
But the hours on the court took their toll. The swelling in Hollins' ankle was slow to go down. He struggled to regain his versatility, settling for perimeter shots rather than challenge opponents with a drive. His penchant for cutting to the rim and drawing contact all but disappeared.
His numbers sank correspondingly; he averaged 11.3 points a game the rest of the way.
Perhaps most concerning was the departure of his most signature asset.
"I don't know if he smiled at the end of the year," McHale said. "And this is a kid that smiles all day long."
After the Gophers won the NIT championship -- he smiled on that day at least -- Hollins took a break and then went to work rehabbing.
He worked with strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown to stretch and strengthen the joint and his hip, which had gotten jammed after he shifted his weight around in awkward ways to avoid pressure on the ankle. He avoided the pounding of regular training. He took ice baths. He pulled out a spongy mat and practiced yoga. Ultimately, he was able to avoid the surgery on his hip that the team considered.
Out came the smile.
"You can see that he's having a lot of fun right now." McHale said.
With the ankle no longer a concern, Hollins can focus on other things. In particular: his explosiveness, the Gophers' summer project for him.
Now, after workouts, Hollins will stay in the gym with Brown, pushing around 90-pound plates on a sled for 10-second spurts.
This season being his last, Hollins is more motivated than ever, McHale said. He's feeling good again, the physical health feeding into well-being of the mental variety. He has a chip on his shoulder after getting left off all three All-Big Ten teams last season. And if you ask McHale, the smiling senior is ready to change that.
"He's not going to be satisfied with a .500 year in the Big Ten," McHale said. "The kid looks so good in workouts right now ... he's playing as good as he has since I've been here."
When University of Minnesota assistant basketball coach Dan McHale works from his office in the early mornings, it's not unusual for him to discover a grinning visitor in his doorway.
Josh Martin -- the Gophers' effervescent freshman -- will stop by, breakfast in hand, to say hello and check in on his coaches.
"He's the type of kid that you can't kick out of your office," McHale said. "Every day I wake up and see him, he puts a smile on my face because he's always in a good mood, he's always energetic."
The incoming forward's big personality has driven early coverage of him -- and understandably so. Martin began to show his colors when reporters spoke with him after he committed. Then, he promised dunks and winks at the camera and splashy quotes. He's dutifully kept up with the team since that verbal, and tweets about the Gophers and Minnesota -- and just about everything else -- constantly.
But Martin has brought that energy to the gym as well.
The extremely athletic 6-foot-8 forward runs the floor like a guard but the Gophers believe he will be able to play a Joey King-like stretch four position and could contribute major minutes this fall. Already, he's packed on about nine pounds in the weight room, McHale said, on a frame with just three percent body fat.
"He's Shaun Brown's dream," McHale said, referencing the team's strength and conditioning coach. "A ready-made college body ... He's got such a great upside because he's as athletic as can be. He does stuff that we did't have [last year]. He's strong, he's physical, but he can rebound out of his area.
"He just needs to be a sponge and fine-tune everything. And that's what he's doing. He's the most coachable kid I've been around in a long time."
Martin and rising junior Joey King are roommates and -- possessing very similar skill sets -- have worked out together. The two bonded when Martin visited Minnesota last fall and have become close since the Seattle native arrived back on campus. McHale sometimes will find the two of them in the gym along at midnight, shooting and rebounding for each other.
Throughout the summer, the Gophers, who knew Martin would be able to help out defensively and on the boards right away, have been pleasantly surprised by his how strong his face-up game has proven to be. The freshman still needs to work on his low post moves, but the belief is that he has the potential to give his buddy King -- the favorite for starting power forward next season -- a run for his money.
"That's what I told Josh," McHale said. "You guys can be the best of friends off the court, but you're doing him a disservice if you don't push him every day on the court. Competition breeds success."
Even if its achieved with a heavy side of goofy jokes from Martin.
And as for those early morning check ins?
"He always wants to know how you're doing," McHale said with a chuckle. "I tell him 'Don't worry about me, just take care of you."
From the moment when Nate Mason signed his letter of intent to the University of Minnesota, the Gophers coaching staff hoped he'd benefit from the presence of the team's veteran backcourt.
Already, assistant Dan McHale sees that hope taking shape.
Mason, a 5-foot-11 combo guard from Georgia, has plenty of talent in his own right. The three-star recruit proved capable of scoring at the basket and from the perimeter at the high school level. Now, the freshman guard with the potential to root a sixth man role next season is working on honing those skills with the help of Gophers seniors Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu.
"They've really taken Nate under their wing," McHale said. "Learning from two seniors is the biggest advantage for him.
Mason has been grouped with the pair the summer in individual workouts, allowing him to exploit the similarities he shares with them. Like Mathieu, Mason is quick and crafty at finding gaps in the lane. Like Hollins, he can light it up from the outside. With the ability to play either point guard or shooting guard, McHale refers to him as "a younger version of Andre."
"He's got the best of both worlds," McHale said. "I think we could throw him out there at the start of Big Ten lay and put him at [point guard], but we also have the luxury of putting him off the ball."
This summer, the Gophers are looking for Mason to sharpen the overall aspects of his game while building the muscle necessary to stand up to the physicality of the Big Ten.
McHale made it clear that the team will need Mason to play a big role right away come fall. All the while, the coaches hope the year will act as an internship for a potential starting opportunity the following season. That's where looking to Mathieu and Hollins will come in.
"I can already tell," McHale said. "He just tries to emulate what they do."
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