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
A few weeks ago, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino was passing through the locker room when he saw redshirt sophomore Charles Buggs posted up in front of the television, watching basketball.
For a second, it caught Pitino off-guard. Why? Buggs -- now in the starting lineup via a mixture of chance and notable improvement -- doesn't enjoy basketball the same way that some players do. He isn't caught up in the bubble talk, and he isn't salivating over the night's best matchups.
But his coach wants him to. At least to some degree. That, Pitino said, will in turn foster more growth from the 6-foot-9, super-athletic wing.
"I don't know if he loves the game," Pitino said recently. "I don't think he hates it but we've got to get him to live in the gym and love the game and realize, hey, he could do this and become pretty good at it."
Buggs, always an underdog to hold this role, entered the starting lineup for one game, vs. Iowa, in January, and then again to stay, at Iowa on Feb. 12, and he has every opportunity to capitalize once again next season. The Gophers' staff -- with three additional scholarships to play with for the 2015 class -- is still recruiting with the hopes the team will be able to bring on board at least one more big wing.
Currently, though, the Gophers' 2015 signees include just three guards and a center.
JUCO transfer Carlos Morris, who started at the 3 position for most of the year, will be a senior, but Pitino has made it clear he's not interested in giving the lanky wing more responsibility until he proves he'll try harder on defense and take fewer contested shots on offense.
Buggs, meanwhile, is beginning to mature on the court, while better taking advantage of the natural talent that has always been within him. When Pitino arrived at Minnesota, he told the media he thought Buggs -- then a redshirt freshman -- had the most potential of any player on the roster. The sophomore has shown he can rebound out of his area, not because he's great at blocking out -- he often forgets -- but because he has long arms and such instinctual leaping ability. He's got a smooth shooting touch and plenty of range. He's got the capability of making 'wow' plays at the basket without much effort sometimes. Eventually, Pitino says, he hopes Buggs will be able to create his own shot and get to the rim at will.
"He did it vs. Wisconsin. He drove on a left wing there, just went by -- I forget who it was -- that's just natural ability. Moving forward with this, that's what we've got to get to ... Buggs has that ability, he just has to figure out how to get there."
Buggs' minutes have gone up from last year, when he played a spot 6.7 a game to 13.4 through 29 games so far this year, and his scoring averages have increased correspondingly, from 1.7 points a game to 3.8. Meanwhile, his defense and general court awareness has improved. He still has a long ways to go before he's considered the favorite to start next year, but Pitino sees progress.
Now the coach wants to see a summer of dedication, and maybe a little more interest in watching other games as the NCAA tournament wages on.
"He's gotten way better from where he was," he said. "I mean, he has really, really improved.
Now it's going to come down to he's had a decent year -- not a bad year, not a good year -- now does he want to make that jump and have a great year next year. And that means living here. Living in the gym, living in the weight room and being serious about the game."
Watching Joey King and his signature pump fake this season has caused fans to run the gamut of emotions.
In non-conference play, it was comical. King pump faked when no one was guarding him very closely. He pump faked and then froze when it actually worked. At some point during that 13-game span it became part of a drinking game, don't even lie, you did it too. How it doesn't yet have its own Twitter account, I don't know. Someone is dropping the ball there.
Then, as Minnesota plummeted to the reality of the Big Ten, and an 0-5 start, the Gophers' offense stopped cruising so smoothly and the King pump-fake -- and the hesitation that seemed to go hand-in-hand -- was thrust into the spotlight, particularly in the Ohio State loss on Jan. 6, when King flubbed a couple of big opportunities and turned over the ball because of it. Around this time, coach Richard Pitino joked that his power forward had a quota of shot fakes he had to reach each game, and King mentioned that he picked this habit up from an old guy in a scrimmage game at Lifetime Fitness (what else did he pick up there?) and that he was trying to "cut it out" of his game.
Instead, the junior power forward started using it differently. In the last couple of games, we've seen King use the shot-fake as it's supposed to be used -- to create space -- and with decent results. Pump-fake critics started considering that what has seemed more like a nervous tick for most of the season, could have some actual value.
"I used to just shot-fake for no reason and now I'm starting to make the right plays off of it," King said. "It's not a matter of how many can I get up in a game, it comes down to making smart decisions every time I do use it."
That sentiment reached a fever pitch last night when King used two fakes from beyond the perimeter to draw Michigan State fouls. He made eight trips to the line in all, and those ensuing eight makes were critical in the Gophers' 96-90 victory, particularly the pair of three-point plays he converted, the last coming with 14 seconds left in regulation and pulling Minnesota within two points.
Without King's huge shots from the stripe, the Gophers potentially don't win that game.
"It's just something I've been working on in practice recently," King said. "For a while I wasn't confident enough to do it in the games because I hadn't pump-faked and jumped into people previously in my career. It's something I worked on in practice and finally mustered up the confidence to do it a couple of times."
Pitino put it another way, one that fans who have laughed, cried and yelled with joy over King's pump fake might be able to relate to.
"It's not as painful to watch him shot fake anymore as it was early," the coach said with a grin.
"His shot fake has evolved. It started early, shot fake, nothing ever happened. Now he started shot-faking, making the right play, and now he's shot faking and guys are jumping into him.
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."
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