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
Read my full story on Minnesota's 96-90 win at Michigan State here.
Three quick observations before I go get my luxurious three hours of sleep:
It's called growth, people. OK, let's not make too much of it. The Gophers still have plenty of flaws, that much is obvious, and have put themselves in a hole this season with lots of missed chances. But one statistic is telling: in conference play, Minnesota has played nine games that have been decided by six points or fewer. The Gophers lost the first six games. After Thursday's huge victory -- first time Minnesota has won at Michigan State since 1997 by the way -- they've gone 3-1 since then. That's meaningful, and beneficial for the players that will still be around next year.
NIT? Probably happening at this point. I know you all have been on the edges of your seats, waiting to get the nod that the Little Dance could potentially welcome back its cinderella, a Gophers team that has made it to the championship game twice in the last three years. I know, I know, try to calm yourself. Minnesota now has two pretty strong road wins -- at Iowa and at Michigan State -- and oddly much better resume in that regard than last year, which -- along with the Gophers' history in this thing -- will probably enough to get the nod in spite of the lack of ranked wins and a sub-par RPI for a power conference team. Go pop champagne bottles now.
Carlos Morris, how you baffle thee. Some nights, coach Richard Pitino probably doesn't want Morris on the team. Others, he probably wishes Morris had three more years. Actually, the sentiment probably varies from possession-to-possession because, well, you never know what what the JUCO transfer is going to do. Sometimes he throws up shots with all kinds of hands in faces. Sometimes he makes it and everyone's like "...OK." Sometimes he does that with two seconds left in a game to bring it to overtime, and sometimes he misses the extra point and still nobody really cares because wow, what a shot. Does all of this make sense? It should if you watch Morris enough and you understand how tired I am. Anyway, he was clutch tonight, and a huge part of Minnesota's win and justified his recruitment as much as any one game can do such a thing.
Michigan State hosts Minnesota in Breslin Center tonight at 6 p.m. ET. Watch on Big Ten Network or listen live on 1500-a.m.
Five things to watch as the Gophers try to notch one final road game and a chance at an NIT berth:
Spartan rebounding and physicality. Michigan State is averaging a Big Ten-best 11.7 offensive rebounds per game, grab 35.1 percent of their misses -- third in the league -- and average 12.4 second-chance points in conference play. If Minnesota, second-to-last in league in defensive rebounding doesn't battle inside and hit the defensive boards better than usual tonight, it could be the difference maker. "Probably the best in the league when it comes to that," forward Joey King said of the Spartans ability to fight off opponents on the glass and make opponents uncomfortable on defense. "Always slapping down on drives. Just really physical."
A return to Hollinsanity? If we've learned one thing through the course of this season, it's that the Gophers aren't going to win many games when senior guard Andre Hollins disappears offensively. Exhibit A: when the Gophers started 0-5 and Hollins averaged just 9.2 points per game. Exhibit B: when Hollins averaged just over 21 points for the next eight games and Minnesota went 5-3. Exhibit C: Hollins has shot just 26.3 percent from the field in the last two, both losses, scoring a total of 14 points. Coach Richard Pitino doesn't like to put the scoring impetus on Hollins, but at this point it's obvious. The Gophers need their scoring leader to have a chance. In conference play, Minnesota is 1-6 when he makes four field goals or fewer.
Hot off the pine. On Feb. 10, senior guard Travis Trice was replaced in the lineup by Lourawls Nairn Jr. (see below) and has subsequently watched his minutes dwindle from 34.4 through the first ten Big Ten games to 27.8 in the last four. But in the same span, Trice has actually found a new efficiency, even while coming in cold and getting less time, averaging 16.3, nearly three points more than he was in the first ten (Tip of the cap to Kyle Austin of MLive for the stat).
Tum, tum, tum, tum TUM! Remember that tiny, speedy guard with the fantastic nickname and theme song and big reputation who put Minnesota in his top three schools only to wind up at Big Ten foe Michigan State? Well, Lourawls (Tum Tum) Nairn hasn't had nearly the season that ultimate Gophers signee Nate Mason has, but in the last four games, he's worked his way into the starting five and is starting to show some hints of the talent -- especially on long boards and in distributing -- that made him a four-star recruit. This is Minnesota's first live glimpse of him in action since he turned the Gophers down. One game after going scoreless vs. Illinois, will he impress?
Guarding Dawson. At 6-foot-6, Branden Dawson is one of the most versatile power forwards in the league, leading the Big Ten in rebounding (both offensive and defensive) despite his size and blocking 1.5 shots a game while also landing in the top-15 in steals (1.3 per game) and shooting 54.7 percent of his shots (fourth in the conference). If Minnesota wants a chance at stopping the senior wing who has compiled 51 and 31 rebounds in the last three games, it's going to be a job for more than Gophers forward Joey King.
The DEETS. Michigan State hosts Minnesota at the Breslin Center at 6 p.m. tonight. Watch on Big Ten Network or listen live on 1500-a.m.
The READING. With three games remaining, it's the Gophers' youth that coach Richard Pitino is turning to for bigger and bigger roles.
**Freshman Nate Mason is expected to start again at point guard. It would be his fifth start of the year.
**The Gophers have had trouble finding a win in East Lansing no matter what the opposing team that takes the court looks like. Minnesota hasn't won at Breslin Center since the 1996-97 season, when the Gophers topped the Spartans 81-74. Minnesota also hasn't had Michigan State at home since Dec. 31, 2012, a win.
**Michigan State has won four straight games, and six of its last seven. Over the four-game winning streak, MSU is allowing just 55.0 points, as opponents are shooting just .371, including .257 from 3-point range. In addition, MSU is shooting .497 from the field, .397 from 3-point range, and .737 from the foul line. The Spartans (.634) and bottom-dweller Rutgers are the only Big Ten teams that have a worse free-throw percentages than Minnesota (.660) but Michigan State is coming off its best performance of the year from the charity stripe -- 17-for-20 or .850 at Illinois.
**Senior guard Andre Hollins is now fourth on Minnesota's all-time career scoring list after passing Kevin McHale and Sam Jacobson last week. But after averaging over 21 points in eight consecutive games, Hollins hasn't been the same in the last two, shooting just 5-for-19 from the field (26.3 percent).
**Asked the difference between last year's season -- his first at Minnesota -- and this year, Pitino offered up the following:
"Any time you go into a first year, you kind of get a free pass with everyone and it's just kind of the honeymoon stages. Then -- to me, with what we did last year -- we lost three starters. Elliott was really the only guy who played a lot besides Austin [Hollins] and Andre [Hollins] and Mo [Walker] had to change his life, physically, but he had never really played. Mav [Anahmisi} had hardly played, [Charles] Buggs had hardly played, Oto [Osenieks] had hardly played.
"To do what we did in that first year -- I didn't really have a whole lot of expectations, so to do that, I was excited about it. And having a lot of guys back, I knew we had to improve because expectations would be higher. And I understood that and I knew they'd have to play with the weight of the world on their shoulders a little bit. But I'll be honest, just looking at it, it's not that it hasn't really gone the way I wanted it to go -- obviously we want to win every game -- but guys are competing and it's just continuing to build more than anything."
Pitino has made it clear that he wants the conversation to remain about the present, but considering the circumstances, some fans might feel better in looking to the future, when the Gophers have their best-ranked class in years coming in.
One of the holdover silver linings, of course, is guard Nate Mason, who has quietly had a strong year even as he's gone through normal first-year ups and downs. Pitino called Mason an "old soul on the court" on Wednesday and said that he sees signs the guard could begin to morph into one of the team's leaders next year and beyond.
"He communicates," Pitino said. "He makes big plays. If you want to be a leader, you have got to make big plays. Guys have got to look at you and say 'This guy is ready to go to war and he's not afraid of anything.' Nate has shown that, so that's immediately going to give him credibility ... we're going to be young next year. That's a good thing. We've got to get young and grow with these young guys and get them some good experience."
Richard Pitino said freshman Nate Mason will most likely start at point guard again, in place of senior DeAndre Mathieu, when Minnesota travels to Michigan State on Thursday (6 p.m. CT, Big Ten Network).
"DeAndre's just not having a great year," the coach said. "You've got to play the players that are playing well."
Mason started at Wisconsin on Saturday for the fourth time this season, and the first time in more than a month. After the Gophers came away with a 63-53 loss, Pitino commented that he didn't like Mathieu's attitude after the previous loss, vs. Northwestern at home.
Statistically, it seems to make sense as well. Heading into East Lansing, Mathieu is averaging 8.4 points and a 2.65-to-1 assist to turnover ratio while Mason is putting up 9.6 points a game with a 2.59-to-1 assist to turnover ratio.
"I don't really see much of a difference between the two," junior Joey King said. "Obviously they're both great point guards. Freshman, senior, I don't really see a difference."
Debate over whether court storming should be allowed in college basketball has become an annual thing, and after Kansas State's 70-63 upset of Kansas-- and subsequent storming of the floor -- went less smoothly than it could have, with Jayhawks coach Bill Self pushed up against the scorers table, and a player receiving a running shove, the argument has hit once again. Proponents say it's fun. Critics say it's dangerous.
Pitino, while in favor of beefed up security measures, said he doesn't want the NCAA to get rid of the student-led tradition.
"With Kansas State, I'm watching that and how many points did they win by? So the Kansas State people, in my opinion, they just need to be preemptive and just shield everybody off and make sure everybody can get off the court," he said. "It's different than when Indiana hits a buzzer beater vs. Kentucky last year. That's tough. So just do your best to get the opposing team off the court, protect them. As long as you do that, I've got no problem with it. It's part of college basketball, it's fun to watch."
Growing up in Eagan, Joey King remembers watching Kevin Garnett -- who was recently traded back to the Timberwolves after a seven-year hiatus -- with the team that drafted him.
"Definitely a lot of fun," he said. "I'm glad to have him back. I think he's going to be a great, you know, leader."
About those old No. 21 jerseys of his? He'll have to get a new one.
"They don't fit me anymore," he said.
When Minnesota coach Richard Pitino starts to look back on this year's schedule, he notices one glaring difference: the lack of ranked teams in Williams Arena.
At this point of the season, Minnesota has hosted just one -- No. 22 Ohio State, which brought the Gophers a loss way back on Jan. 6. Correspondingly, Minnesota doesn't have a single ranked win this year. Of course, there is another opportunity on deck: the stronger-than-ever Wisconsin, which comes to the Barn next week.
A year ago tomorrow, the Gophers would be beating their third ranked opponent at home -- No.20 Iowa. Those three teams -- including Ohio State and Wisconsin -- were the only ranked teams that stepped in Williams Arena, but Minnesota also hosted an unranked Michigan team in the season opener (the Gophers narrowly lost) that wound up making it to the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight.
"One of the things we haven't really gotten the benefit of -- we played three top-20 teams in our building," Pitino said of last season. "All of our top-20 teams ... have been on the road."
True, but that's also only included two teams -- No. 12 Maryland on Jan. 3 and No. 5 Wisconsin last Saturday. Michigan State is on the verge, but won't be by Thursday, when Minnesota comes to town.
Partly due to the Big Ten's new scheduling format and partly due to the conference's overall weak year, the Gophers simply haven't played as many ranked teams as usual. Considering Minnesota's currently situation -- no signature wins and a weakening chance it will make even the NIT -- the Gophers could have potentially benefitted from a few more opportunities.
After the addition of Rutgers and Maryland this season, the Big Ten began assigning each team eight league opponents which they would only play once in a given season -- four 'home onlys'; four 'away onlys.' That's up from just two 'home onlys' and two 'away onlys,' and four 'play once' opponents previously.
Some coaches say that's changed how the league standings -- as quirky as ever this year -- have fallen.
"It’s so hard to get a handle of where everybody is right now," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said regarding the new format on last week's coaches teleconference. "And it’s going to take a few years – it’s not necessarily a negative as far as what’s going to better our conference for the future, but I think it’s a problem now in that fans can’t get a handle on where everybody is, media can’t get a handle, honestly as a coach I can’t get a handle sometimes.
"I look at who’s got the same record as you yet who did they play – did they play them on the road, did they play them at home."
The Big Ten's power structure will always be unpredictable, but next year -- the league announced matchups for next season last week -- should bring some additional chances for Minnesota.
Wisconsin and Maryland, the only two conference teams currently ranked, are both 'home onlys'. Michigan State -- which received 56 votes in this week's poll -- is too. And a Purdue team that is currently tied for second place in the league standings, rounds out that grouping.
Matchups on the road (both 'away onlys' and 'home-and-aways') include beatable teams Northwestern, Rutgers, Penn State and Nebraska, as well as Iowa, whom the Gophers topped on Feb. 12.
Take a look, again, at the full matchup breakdown:
Home: Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin
Away: Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State
Home/Away: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern, Rutgers
"I don't think there is necessarily a perfect fit when we have the amount of teams that we do," Pitino said. "...Certainly the Big Ten does the best they possibly can. What you realize is it's a marathon. We started three of four on the road and then we start 0-5 in conference. You've got to weather the storm a little bit just because of that unbalanced schedule and certainly stay the course. Hopefully in the end, it all evens out."
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