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
Perhaps yesterday's brutal loss to Arkansas was good in some small way -- to help properly set expectations for a team that is still somewhat in transition.
The Gophesr don't have a bruising frontcourt. They don't have depth there, or great athleticism. They don't have a ton of experience.
All of that showed on Tuesday and will represent challenges for the Gophers likely to struggle to overcome all season.The Big Ten will be more lilke the last two days that it will be like anything Minnesota had faced prior this season.
Now, the Gophers should have an opportunity to at least leave the island on a positive note, with a matchup against DII host Chaminade in the battle to not take last place in the Maui Invitational.
But it's not quite that easy.
The probelm with playing Chaminade is two-fold:
*You don't get many points for dominating a DII team, even on the road
*What if they lose? After all, Chaminade has upset teams in this tournament in the past and the Arkansas blowout would look much tamer against a last-day loss today.
Five things to watch as the Gophers play their second consecutive morning game.
1. Mindset -- The Gophers looked exhausted and defeated after the loss to Arkansas. It's important for them to regroup today and not take Chaminade for granted. Coming in with a lack of focus -- as they did yesterday --- and starting slow could spell trouble. The Silverswords have played two ranked teams so far, and are probably welcoming the opportunity to catch Minnesota off-guard.
2. Mo Walker -- How long will it take to brush off the rust? The center wasn't very effective at all yesterday, recording one point, one rebound and not doing much in the way of defense. The frontcourt needs the boost that he can bring.
3. Christophe Varidel and Lee Bailey -- Each are capable of huge games. Each are capable of being corked. Can the Gophers contain both? Varidel exploded for 42 points against Baylor, but had just eight against Chaminade. Bailey was quiet in the first game, scoring seven points, but adding seven rebounds and five assists, but went off for 29 points against Gonzaga.
4. Malik Smith -- The senior guard has looked noticeably better in the last two games, getting more involved offensively and hitting some very clutch shots. The Gophers needed that spark, which dimmed in the second half, to continue yesterday and they need it again today.
5. Turnovers -- Here we go again? For the first five games, it looked as though the Gophers' ballhandling issues had been harnessed, but here they are again. In the last two games, Minnesota has turned the ball over 19 and 16 times, respectively. A lot of those were careless and unforced. It's not a good habit to get into -- can the Gophers start to right the ship again today?
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:
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