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
It's possible Richard Pitino has never been uncomfortable behind a podium.
Growing up the kid of a legend -- current Louisville coach Rick Pitino -- the 31-year-old coach has been around the bright lights of college basketball since he was an infant.
But Tuesday, at a Gopher Road Trip stop in Redwood Falls, the Minnesota coach, now in his second year, displayed a new level of ease in talking to the 300-some locals that showed up to hear him and other coaches from the university speak.
This year he's no longer a newbie; he has a system in place; he knows the returning players well, the others he's taken time to recruit; he has a grasp on the program.
"It was a lot more fun for me to speak this year than it was last year because I was just making everything up last year," he joked at the end of his ten-minute talk in the Redwood Area Community Center meeting room, jammed Gophers fans decked in maroon and gold.
Pitino's topics ranged from past to future, lauding the team's NIT championship run and then looking ahead to next year's new additions and aspects he hopes to change. Afterward, we caught up on a few more items.
"I'm excited that this is not another first year," he said. "Year two is always, not easier, but certainly your head stops spinning as much ... The expectations will certainly be higher next year and we're looking forward to that. Because that's a great challenge that we feel we can live up to."
Some notes and thoughts from Pitino:
*Andre Hollins will likely avoid hip surgery this offseason. The combo guard had considered a procedure after tweaking a hip late in the season while rehabbing from a sprained left ankle. "I don't think it's necessary," Pitino said. "He feels better. The biggest thing is him getting healthy. He has bad hips. When he hurt his ankle, it made it even worse because he was favoring it." The coach said Hollins has been working with strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown on a slightly different offseason program to strengthen his joints and hips.
*When he took the job, Pitino sold an uptempo brand of basketball, much like the version he conducted at Florida International in his first season as a head coach. Ultimately, Minnesota ranked ninth in the Big Ten in adjusted tempo (64.8) and 257th nationally. "I don't really think we really played the way I wanted to play this year," Pitino said. "Hopefully we can get faster, more athletic, more aggressive. My first year at FIU, we had a really athletic team, we were eighth in the country in steals, and that's something I want to get back to, top ten in steals ... I think with this years's class, we are certainly moving toward that."
*Pitino mentioned the team's academic achievements, specifically noting the squad-wide 981 (out of 1,000) Academic Progress Rate (APR) score and Joey King's 4.0 grade point average last season. "They're the type of guys I would let babysit my daughter," the coach said. "I don't know about my six-week-old, but maybe my daughter ... They made me a better coach. They pushed me and allowed me to grow. Because I'm still young and I've still got a long way to go as basketball coach."
*The only other new non-conference scheduling piece is the addition of UNC-Wilmington, which will travel to Minnesota on Dec. 27. The matchup will bring a pair of familiar faces. New head coach Kevin Keatts worked alongside the younger Pitino as an assistant on Rick Pitino's staff at Louisville. New assistant, Casey Stanley, worked as a video coordinator on Minnesota's staff last season. Other announced non-conference items include the season opener vs. Louisville in Puerto Rico, the NIT Season Tip-Off (the field includes St. John's, Georgia and Gonzaga) at Madison Square Garden, and a trip to Wake Forest for the Big Ten - ACC Challenge.
*Incoming recruits Carlos "Squirrel" Morris and Zach Lofton are already on campus. The other four new additions -- all freshmen -- will arrive later this month. Teams are allowed to start summer practices on June 16 and can work out for two hours per week after that.
Pitino on the recruits:
Gaston Diediou -- "Physical, physical kid, great athlete, will play as if every possession he plays is his last possession of basketball. We need guys like him: tough, athletic, above-the-rim type guy. He fits what we're trying to do."
Bakary Konate -- "I think his basketball is far ahead of him. Every time I ask him how he's doing, he says 'Always great coach.' It's my favorite response ever."
Carlos Morris -- "I don't know why his nickname is Squirrel and I don't care. I never want to know why. He's probably the one guy we need to come in and make an impact right away like DeAndre Mathieu did for us this year because we lose Austin Hollins. I thought he was one of the better players in all of junior college last year. Junior College All-American and he has the opportunity to really be handed the ball at that spot and score a lot of points for us. He's got that type of ability."
Josh Martin -- "The Twitter sensation, all he ever does is tweet 50 times a day. You guys will love him. Not only on the court but off the court. He's got an unbelievable personality. He plays with great enthusiasm on the court and he's much like DeAndre Mathieu was this year -- not the same type of player -- but he'll be that type of high energy player on the court. He tries to dunk everything. He tries to break every backboard that he tries to dunk on. It's just the way he is. And he was another guy that we beat out some really good programs for. And he fits our style of play."
Nate Mason -- "Beat out some really really good schools for him ... he decided to come up here because he liked our style of play, he liked our brand of basketball that we play with our guards. He's a little bit like Andre Hollins, he can play a couple of different positions."
Zach Lofton -- "I'm not saying he will be our best player, but he's got the most talent of anybody in our basketball program. We worked him out when he came to visit and it wasn't even close. He's got size, he's got the skill, he's got the ability ... if he puts it all together he could be really, really special for us."
Just over a year ago, Richard Pitino was an unrecognizable face with a familiar last name.
Now -- according to an ESPN list published on Monday -- after guiding Minnesota to the NIT championship in his first year at the helm, the two-year head coach has done enough to sit among elite company.
ESPN included Pitino, who coached one season at Florida International before taking the job at Minnesota before last season, on a list of the top-50 coaches nationally, based on current work.
Not bad for a 31-year-old who has not yet authored an NCAA tournament appearance.
The compilation, ESPN staff wrote, reflects only the present and isn't a statement about these coaches' legacies or careers. But that qualification doesn't make the list any less confusing.
Pitino sat at No. 49 on a list that excluded Big Ten coaching veterans, Tom Crean -- who took Indiana its second consecutive Sweet Sixteen just two years ago -- and Matt Painter, who has taken Purdue to the NCAA tournament six times and has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year thrice since 2008.
Directly behind Pitino, in a tie for No. 50 is Baylor coach Scott Drew, fresh off a trip to the Sweet Sixteen. Ten spots in front, former Minnesota coach Tubby Smith roots No. 39 after posting the first losing season of his coaching career, at Texas Tech, a team that did not play in a postseason tournament. Dayton's Archie Miller, after bringing his program to its first Elite Eight in 30 years, is somehow only at No. 26.
According to the post, ESPN staff compiled the post based on individual ratings from "nearly 100" college basketball experts at the company. Each person rated coaches current work on a scale from 1-10. Then, the coaches were ranked accordingly. Whether each person had the same criteria -- ie., how program expectations are factored -- isn't clear.
So what does the list mean? Well, not much. ESPN isn't insinuating that the ranking is a predictor of immediate success going forward, nor is it meant to be an overall hierarchy of coaches in the game.
What it does say is that on a national scale, Pitino's first season at Minnesota turned some heads. At this point, though, the sample size is still incredibly small.
Austin Hollins was relaxing at home in Germantown, Tenn., spending some rare down time with his family when he got the call.
He needed to come back to Minneapolis, his agent told him. The Minnesota Timberwolves had invited the four-year Gophers guard to a workout for potential draft picks in two days.
His agent, Teddy Archer had been making the obligatory calls around the league but until that point, Hollins, whose name isn't found on any of the major mock drafts, hadn't heard from any NBA team since graduating earlier this month.
"I was a little shocked," said Hollins, who worked out at Target Center on Thursday afternoon along with Louisville forward Chane Behanan, Mercer guard Langston Hall, Oregon forward Mike Moser, Massachussetts guard Chaz Williams and Bosnian forward Adin Vrabac. "I wasn't expecting it to come right then, but I was excited because it's blessing to have some teams interested in you even though I wasn't talked about highly just to get the opportunity to go in there and try to show what I can do."
Happily, Hollins changed his flight. Interestingly, the move that cut short his family time has a small chance at extending it in a major way.
Hollins' father, former Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, interviewed weeks ago and is considered one of the top candidates for the Timberwolves' vacant head coaching job. Minnesota, meanwhile, has three second-round picks in the June 26 draft: Nos. 40 (from New Orleans), 44 (their own slot) and 53 (from Golden State).
In recent years, the Timberwolves have made it a habit of bringing in locals who aren't highly sought after elsewhere. Lawrence McKenzie, Spencer Tollackson and Dan Coleman all worked out with Minnesota in the absence of many other opportunities. Last season, the Wolves invited both Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams -- who each had interest elsewhere as well -- for workouts.
Between the elder Hollins' 28-year coaching career and Austin Hollins' collegiate campaign in Dinkytown, a potential reunion would give the pair the opportunity to spend more time together than they've had the chance to in years.
"I've definitely thought about it," Hollins said on Wednesday. "It would be a huge difference. Me being in Minnesota, even when he was out of work [this past year], I still wasn't around to spend time with him ... But in that situation, the dad card goes out the window and it's just coach. Off the court, I'm sure we would talk, but inside the lines, no mercy."
It's been years, Hollins said, since the two even found the time to get in a gym and work out together, but it didn't stop them from talking shop over the phone or at the dinner table when they had a meal.
Perhaps that guiding hand has influenced Hollins' mature outlook. Unlike some talented athletes that have loudly talked of NBA prospects long before and sometimes after the conversation was relevant, Hollins seems to hold a realistic view of his future. But the dream has long been marinating.
The child of a coach, Hollins practically grew up looking on the sidelines, his youthful eyes growing wider as he watched his dad conduct first the Phoenix Suns, then the Vancouver Grizzlies.
By the time he was in elementary school, he announced to the family that he didn't just want to play basketball -- his brother played at a Division III school in St. Louis -- but he wanted to go somewhere he could play on TV.
That goal was achieved at the University of Minnesota, where the Gophers regularly played on the Big Ten Network. But little boys' hoop aspirations rarely stop there.
"When I was young, I always had that dream of going to the NBA," he said. "I was just around basketball so much and I developed a love for the game."
Even if the possibility remains slim that he ends up there now, Hollins soaked up the opportunity, one was made even more meaningful due to its location. Before his workout, he pointed out that he has "nothing to lose."
"Being here for four years, there is some kind of comfort level in the city, it's like a second home for me," he said.
Austin Hollins isn't getting much love in NBA mock drafts, but that doesn't mean there isn't at least some interest from teams.
The 6-4 shooting guard, who graduated from the University of Minnesota this spring, is one of six players scheduled to work out for the Minnesota Timberwolves tomorrow, according to a press release.
The Wolves have three second-round picks in the June 26 draft: Nos. 40 (from New Orleans), 44 (their own slot) and 53 (from Golden State).
It's his first workout with any NBA team, the younger Hollins said.
In an interesting twist, his father, unemployed NBA coach Lionel Hollins (who most recently worked for the Memphis Grizzlies) is considered one of the top candidates in the Timberwolves coaching search.
After a strong start to the season, averaging 13 points and 7 rebounds -- including a single game high of 14 vs. South Dakota State in a game that also pushed him past 1,000 career points -- in the first 15 games of the year, Hollins received probably the most NBA scouting attention of his four-year career. Representatives from the San Antonio Spurs, Clevelant Cavaliers, New York Knicks and the Phoenix Suns, among others, watched the Memphis native at some point, according to a source.
A mid-year slump wiped the sheen off those early numbers when the reputed defender inexplicably lost his shooting touch, going 9-for-42 (21.4 percent) from three-point range in the 13 games following the hot start.
But it wasn't the final impression for the guard who has been lauded as the team's hardest worker both by former coach Tubby Smith and current coach Richard Pitino.
Hollins finished the year averaging 16.6 points in the final ten games and playing the role of difference maker in several big wins. Against Iowa, the Gophers having lost six of their last eight, the 22-year-old posted 27 points on a hailstorm of baskets, making up for lost time. He achieved a new career high, 32 points in the NIT quarterfinals, easing Minnesota past Southern Miss and capped the run at Madison Square Garden with 17 points against Florida State and 19 against SMU in the championship game, earning NIT Most Outstanding Player honors.
The concern has been that while Hollins was unquestionably the most well-rounded Minnesota player last season, he might not do anything at the NBA level. His shooting ability has been largely inconsistent throughout his career and though his lengthy wingspan diminishes size concerns, it could be difficult for him to guard opponents at the next stage.
Chicago forward Edward Morrow said this weekend that he's interested in visiting Minnesota officially, but he's very unwilling to name any program leaders in the clubhouse at this point.
Asked who is recruiting him the hardest right now, the 2015 three-star player (according to Rivals) replied "All of them."
His Rivals page lists offers from Bradley, Creighton, Iowa State, Iowa, UMass, Minnesota, Nebraska, Illinois-Chicago, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Wyoming.
"Everybody that offered me is calling me every other day," he said. "So that's good as well for me too, because I have options. I've just got to maintain my grades and keep doing what I've been doing.
"Getting those top-notch schools, that's good," he said. "It just lets you know where your game is progressing at and it also lets you know what you need to work on, talking to the coaches going into the next level."
He didn't slow down from his goals over the weekend, compiling 75 points, 41 rebounds and nine blocks over five games in three days at the EYBL session at the High Performance Academy in Bloomington. The 6-7 forward was very active under the basket vs. the St. Louis Eagles on Saturday, fighting for rebounds using his length to deflect balls in the paint.
The Nebraska native -- he currently attends Simeon Career Academy on Chicago's South Side -- plays the power forward spot now but is being recruited as a small forward or stretch-four type role by most schools, he said.
"It's possible I might still grow so who knows," said Morrow, who noted he has sprouted an inch and a half in the last month.
Minnesota is among a handful of Big Ten schools recruiting Morrow, who is also hearing from Wisconsin, Illinois and Northwestern in addition to Iowa, Nebraska and the Gophers, who have all offered.
His blood line has plenty of roots with the Huskers. Morrow still calls Nebraska "home" and knows the school as the place where his father, Edward Sr. played football while his mother, Nafeesah, played basketball. Things have changed quite a bit since the elder Morrows were on campus. Two and a half years ago, Nebraska unveiled the new Hendricks Training Complex, complete with meeting and film rooms, a weight room, a nutrition "oasis" and a players lounge with a pool table, a kitchen area, a plasma TV wall, hot and cold tanks and built in iPads and speakers everywhere. Last year, the program unveiled Pinnacle Bank Arena, an NBA-style venue. Morrow has been on campus to see all the new improvements, he said.
"The University has just elevated construction-wise," said Morrow, who also noted that facilities wouldn't play a huge role in his decision. "It's actually pretty incredible. The whole design and the structure of the building is pretty nice."
Morrow said he hasn't harbored any dreams of specifically playing in the Big Ten, but some of the conference interest has been intriguing. He hoped to visit Minnesota's campus while in town, but wasn't able to speak with or visit any of the coaches because it's an NCAA dead period in recruiting.
But after watching a handful of Minnesota games on TV and early conversations with the Gophers staff -- which offered him in late April -- Morrow is considering returning next month.
"[Coach Richard Pitino] really wants me to get down there to check out the facilities," he said. "I [think] I could fit into their program. They play more of an uptempo game, they get up and down. The coach seems like he's a great person to be around. I said I would like to get down and visit."
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