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 79-71 win over Illinois here (updated version will be posted as soon as its edited).
Three observations from the Gophers' second win in three games:
Andre Hollins is back and maybe better than ever. The senior guard has now scored 80 points in the last three games. He's attacking the basket in a way we didn't see for weeks on end. The confidence is clearly pumping through his veins. He showed that pure scorer's mentality today, taking his looks however they came. Two games ago (vs. Rutgers) we saw him dunk. Today, he posted a pair of blocks, including a vicious one on Malcolm Hill's attempted slam. He's doing so many different things now, but his big-scoring capability is absolutely the most important -- when he puts up numbers like this, it changes the team. His play prompted Illinois coach John Groce to pull him aside and laud his competitiveness and it pushed Minnesota to another much-needed win.
Mathieu is probably a better fit to start. After giving freshman Nate Mason the nod for the previous three games, coach Richard Pitino handed senior DeAndre Mathieu back his starting spot on Saturday. And it looked smart. The Gophers' were moving the ball as well as they had in all of conference play, and Mason -- fresh off a rare "off game" at Nebraska -- played every bit as well as he has all year off the pine, posting 10 points, three rebounds, six assists and two turnovers. The reality is, the minutes don't matter much but the title does. Mason is likely going to give Minnesota the same thing regardless but Mathieu -- although he says he doesn't -- probably cares a little more.
Maybe this team really is close? This win provided a glimpse into how good the Gophers (13-8; 2-6 in the Big Ten) can be when everything comes together -- and it starts with Walker and Hollins. When those two are rolling like they were today, this team is hard to guard and hard to beat. The other thing that shone were the team's physicality, probably the best of the year, especially on the boards. And Minnesota made a respectable percentage of free throws (75.9). If those three things come together on a regular basis, the Gophers could turn this ugly start around.
Bonus: Did Mo Walker get robbed? The center was called for a block late on Kendrick Nunn in the second half, giving him four fouls and sending him to the bench. The effort got him a big gash over his left eye, and four stitches.
"I thought I got a clean block up top, he said. "I know he came down with the follow through...
I wasn't really happy with that play but other than that I can't really argue with the refs calls."
Minnesota (12-8; 1-6) hosts Illinois today at 1:15 p.m. Watch on Big Ten Network or Listen Live on 1500-a.m.
In today's Star Tribune: Pitino, players battle through early season slump.
Five things to watch today:
Illinois' emerging rotation. The Illini, (13-7; 3-4) whom I expected to be a bit of a sleeper in the Big Ten this year, can't catch a break. Tracy Abrams tore his ACL before the start of the year. Rayvonte Rice broke his hand. Now Aaron Cosby is out too, with an eye injury. All of this means the rotation, in flux all year, is still there. Short on bodies, coach John Groce even promoted a manager to the team. But the Illini still have talent, especially in the frontcourt. Nnanna Egwu has been his typical shot-blocking self, and Malcolm Hill and Leron Black have both stepped up as the chips have fallen. According to Marcus Jackson of the Champaign Gazette, those three are expected to start along with sophomores Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn in the backcourt.
Phasing out Elliott Eliason? In the last two games, the backup big man has played just seven minutes. Raw freshman Bakary Konate, meanwhile has played 30 after sitting for the previous four games. Is Pitino looking to the future? Is he frustrated with Eliason's frustration? The senior's play has dropped off significantly this season as his minutes have dwindled. At some point, it makes more sense to develop what will help you down the road. Perhaps Pitino isn't thinking that longterm yet. But three makes a trend -- does Eliason ride the pine again for most of the day today?
The basics. Things Minnesota struggles with: rebounding, turnovers, hitting free throws. Things Illinois is good at: defensive rebounding, not turning over the ball, hitting free throws. Are the Illini particularly apt at getting to the line? No, they're not, but they're one of the most precise teams in the country (No. 2 to be precise) when they get there. Minnesota, ranked 309th nationally, certainly does not want another game come down to a matter of free throws with this team. Illinois is a very good defensive rebounding team, meaning the Gophers won't get easy second chances. But the Illini don't get many offensive rebounds, leaving a window open for Minnesota in their biggest area of weakness. Illinois also has a tight team-wide handle -- and the fourth ranked offensive turnover percentage in basketball. The Gophers like to force steals, a disruption that becomes necessary when they're carelessly tossing around the ball on their own end. Who wins out?
Mason rebound. This is probably a testament to just how good freshman Nate Mason has been: his 1-for-5-shooting and one-assist, two-turnover "off night" at Nebraska stands out because we simply haven't seen him have bad performances. For a first-year player, that's impressive. Here's what else is: It was just the second game in which Mason's assist-to-turnover ratio was negative (the other also being a one-assist, two-turnover game vs. Seattle) and only the fourth time he's hit only one field goal in a game.
Avoid being the first streak. To say that the Gophers are struggling to get traction is an understatement. But Illinois hasn't exactly been the picture of consistency either. The Illini haven't won consecutive Big Ten games yet. Minnesota doesn't want to be the first to start the streak.
How do you get your players prepared to shoot free throws in a raucous, high-pressure situation?
Faced with that question since the start of the year -- and the start of Minnesota's troubles at the line -- coach Richard Pitino is stopping just short of having Goldy charge at the players as they toe the foul stripe.
For the last three weeks, the team has been shooting extra free throws, before and after practice. Now, he's making them run on misses and trying to get throw them off balance on the line.
"Lately he's been blowing whistles, honking horns, throwing all kind of distractions just to get our mind more focused," junior guard Carlos Morris said. "That's how it's going to be in the game."
It's very difficult, obviously, to simulate a road environment and a high-stakes situation in practice. At the same time, Pitino doesn't want to make too much of the troubles that are likely mostly mental.
"If you bring it up a lot, guys start thinking about it," he said. "You don't want to bring too much light to it. I just want to make sure they're doing their routine, whether it's good, bad, whatever it is."
Said senior guard Andre Hollins: "The thing is not psyching yourself off on the free throws. That's the biggest thing -- keep doing what you've been doing, doing what you did to get here. All of us are good free-throw shooters but the numbers haven't shown that so far."
Minnesota ranks 309th in the nation in free-throw percentage, making just 63.9 percent of its shots in 20 games. In Big Ten play, the Gophers are hitting just 61.7 percent. At Nebraska on Tuesday, the Gophers made a season-low 47.4 percent.
"We're not as bad of a free-throw team as we're showing right now -- we actually can shoot free throws," Morris said. "But it's just like that right now, we're struggling right now."
Just how dramatic have Illinois' injuries been? After the loss of Aaron Cosby (eye), coach John Groce added a former team manager to the roster ahead of the team's road trip to Minnesota (1:15 Saturday, BTN). Read more here.
Minnesota ended its chance to start a winning streak after a loss at Nebraska, and now at 1-6, are the Gophers cooked? Is there anything to look forward to? Let's chat it out at noon.
Deflated footballs? That's yesterday's news.
But were those Nebraska Cornhuskers inspired by the New England Patriots?
Andre Hollins -- questioned about the team's 9-for-19 performance from the free-throw line in a 52-49 loss to the Huskers on Tuesday night -- cited something other than the team's mind-boggling inability to hit shots from the charity stripe, a yearlong problem.
"They were loose rims and [Nebraska uses] Adidas balls, that has something to do with it," Hollins said. "But we've still got to knock those down to finish out the play."
The senior guard stopped far short of accusing anyone of cheating. Although Nike and Anaconda Sports The Rock balls are the most popular, Adidas balls are not unusual or unexpected -- Nebraska is sponsored by Adidas. And even if the rims were a little more relaxed than usual, it would have also affected the Huskers, who shot just over 40 percent from the field and went 14-for-21 (66.7 percent) from the line.
But it was an odd comment considering Minnesota (12-8; 1-6 in the Big Ten) has struggled to hit free throws all season.
The Gophers' 63.9 percent free-throw overall shooting percentage ranks second-to-last in the Big Ten ahead of only Michigan State (63.2 percent). But in conference play, Minnesota has been even worse. The Spartans have shot an identical 63.2 so far while Minnesota has managed 61.2.
Hollins -- who was tied with Joey King for the best free-throw shooting percentage going into the game at 80 percent -- went 4-for-9 from the line, including 4-for-8 in the second half. He missed a pair that would have tied the game with 4:21 to go.
"Can't have that from the best free-throw shooter," he said.
Hollins also knocked down four three-pointers and an extra point in the first half for 13 points. He finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds -- his second-career double-double all but glossed over in the scuffle of a sixth loss in seven games.
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