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

Gophers postgame: Minnesota gives its worst of the year vs. St. John's

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: November 26, 2014 - 10:44 PM

Read my full game story on tonight's loss to St. John's in the first round of the NIT Season Tipoff at Madison Square Garden, here.

It's easy to jump to conclusions about why Minnesota played so poorly. 

The Gophers, after all, were only 30-some hours from the stunning announcement that one of their guards, Daquein McNeil, had been arrested on two counts of felony assault, when they took the court to play St. John's in an ultimate 70-61 loss in which they played their worst game of the year by far.

Maybe the off-the-court crisis played a role. Maybe it didn't. The only thing obvious after Minnesota let a 10-point lead crumble away is that the Gophers aren't ready for the spotlight just yet. And they might not be ready to play on the road at all.

Five quick reactions:

Fouls. Turnovers. Sloppy shots. The Gophers have a reputation of falling into patterns with all of these things at times. Tonight, it was the case in all of the categories. 

Mental toughness. Coach Richard Pitino has warned us that this team might not have the leadership it needs to get through very tough times on the court just yet. That certainly seemed to be the case on Wednesday, when no player was willing or able to grab the team by the collar and shake it back to life.

Where was Mason? The freshman was one of the only bright spots for the Gophers on a night where almost everything seemed to go wrong. The guard finished with a team-leading 15 points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals off the bench, but was riding the pine again for big gaps down the stretch. We didn't get to ask Pitino about any of this because we were cut off after just five minutes when he was on the podium.

Bad Dres = Bad Gophers. This is how it works. If Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu have bad games, the team has a bad game. The pair combined for just 15 points, nine turnovers and five fouls. It's hard to win a game in which that happens.

St. John's is not very good. This is not Louisville. This team won after shooting 39.7 percent from the field, 15.4 percent from three-point range, 59.5 percent from the free-throw line and turning the ball over 18 times. That's as egregious as all of the Gophers' mistakes. 

Gophers postgame: Minnesota gives its worst of the year vs. St. John's

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: November 26, 2014 - 10:44 PM

Read my full game story on tonight's loss to St. John's in the first round of the NIT Season Tipoff at Madison Square Garden, here.

It's easy to jump to conclusions about why Minnesota played so poorly. 

The Gophers, after all, were only 30-some hours from the stunning announcement that one of their guards, Daquein McNeil, had been arrested on two counts of felony assault, when they took the court to play St. John's in an ultimate 70-61 loss in which they played their worst game of the year by far.

Maybe the off-the-court crisis played a role. Maybe it didn't. The only thing obvious after Minnesota let a 10-point lead crumble away is that the Gophers aren't ready for the spotlight just yet. And they might not be ready to play on the road at all.

Five quick reactions:

Fouls. Turnovers. Sloppy shots. The Gophers have a reputation of falling into patterns with all of these things at times. Tonight, it was the case in all of the categories. 

Mental toughness. Coach Richard Pitino has warned us that this team might not have the leadership it needs to get through very tough times on the court just yet. That certainly seemed to be the case on Wednesday, when no player was willing or able to grab the team by the collar and shake it back to life.

Where was Mason? The freshman was one of the only bright spots for the Gophers on a night where almost everything seemed to go wrong. The guard finished with a team-leading 15 points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals off the bench, but was riding the pine again for big gaps down the stretch. We didn't get to ask Pitino about any of this because we were cut off after just five minutes when he was on the podium.

Bad Dres = Bad Gophers. This is how it works. If Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu have bad games, the team has a bad game. The pair combined for just 15 points, nine turnovers and five fouls. It's hard to win a game in which that happens.

St. John's is not very good. This is not Louisville. This team won after shooting 39.7 percent from the field, 15.4 percent from three-point range, 59.5 percent from the free-throw line and turning the ball over 18 times. That's as egregious as all of the Gophers' mistakes. 

Gophers pregame: How will mood affect Minnesota vs. St. John's tonight?

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: November 26, 2014 - 2:46 PM

Check out my preview on all of the NIT Season Tipoff teams here.

All the off-court troubles that have come down on Minnesota in the last 48 hours have been enough to make heads spin (mine included).

But major team crisis or not, there is a game to be played tonight, and a challenging one at that.

Earlier this week, Gophers coach Richard Pitino said he believes St. John's athletic starting five -- packed with talented guards and a big, shot-blocking center -- might be every bit as good as Louisville's, which ran Minnesota off the court in the season opener. 

"They've got guys in their starting five that can play in the NBA," Pitino said. "Chris Obekpa is averaging five blocks [a game]. He's an NBA legit prospect. Sir'Dominic Pointer does a little bit about everything. He may be one of their best all-around players. D'Angelo Harrison is one of the best shooters in the country. And Rasheed Jordan is a great guard. It's going to be a very tough matchup."

Six things to watch in tonight's game:

*Mood. The team was just hit by some very shocking and emotional news, and now they have to play in one of the biggest games of the season. Will they be able to tuck in their chins and go to work when they step onto the court at Madison Square Garden? We'll find out.

*Shot selection. Minnesota's shooting decisions were perhaps its biggest issue in the slow start against UMBC last week, with Carlos Morris (3-for-11) being the "main culprit," Pitino said. In that game, the Gophers shot just 40 percent from the field -- tied for the worst of the year with the Louisville game. Minnesota will need to make their shots count against the much-tougher Red Storm.

*Fouls. Against driving teams, Minnesota has had a tough time defending aggressively without fouling. The Gophers were in foul trouble vs. Louisville. It happened again vs. UMBC. And that was problematic enough. But if Minnesota's backcourt gets into foul trouble tonight, it will be even more damaging with the absence of Daquein McNeil, who was averaging 18.8 minutes a game as a key piece of the guard rotation. One of Minnesota's biggest advantages over St. John's was its depth and strong defensive presence off the bench. Without McNeil, that advantage is lessened substantially.

*Mismatches. St. John's has been playing a very small lineup with some interesting personnel. Sir'Dominic pointer, a 6-foot-6 athletic wing-type player, will man the starting power forward spot. Rasheed Jordan is a 6-foot-5 point guard. "Defensively it's a nightmare," Pitino said. "The way that they take you off the bounce at all four positions is something we're certainly very concerned about. When a team is very good at playing small, it's very hard to go against, so we've got to be ready to defend at all five positions."

*Environment. St. John's plays most of its home games at Madison Square Garden. How many of those regular-season fans will pile up in the stands? Did Gophers fans travel? "I think it will have the feel of a home game," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said. "We'll sit on the same bench in terms of our regular-season games. We don't expect much of a departure from our traditional routine with regards to game preparation and playing in the Garden."

*Leadership. Pitino has publicly said he wants to see his leaders lead more. Tonight, with the team reeling from the recent sad drama, that will be more important than ever. Point guard DeAndre Mathieu was particularly involved with McNeil in a mentorship-type role. Earlier today, he tweeted "All we can do is pray." An emotional player normally, Mathieu will need to control his emotions -- and the team's -- on Wednesday if Minnesota wants a chance.

Prediction: St. John's 68, Minnesota 52.

Opening Tipoff: Five things leading up to tonight's showdown at MSG

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: November 26, 2014 - 11:07 AM

Tonight's game vs. St. John's at Madison Square Garden tips at 6 p.m. CT and will be broadcast on ESPNU and locally, on 1500-a.m.

Five things as I inhale a plate of pad Thai in the East Village ...

1. Not the pregame story we were planning. Minnesota guard Daquein McNeil was arrested on two counts of domestic assault, including felony assault on Monday afternoon and remains in jail, pending charges.

2. Minnesota has swiped at least 13 steals in each of the last three games, and now is ranked seventh in the nation in steal percentage and 11th in defensive turnover percentge, per kenpom.com after four games. One surprise is that early on, the Gophers' defense -- which ranked last in the Big Ten in efficiency a year ago -- has been better than the offense early on. Minnesota's offense is ranked 50th nationally, while its defense lands at No. 34. "Numbers shouldn't matter this early in the season, so I don't look at numbers and rankings and those things right now," coach Richard Pitino said. "If we're [that highly ranked in steals] in February I'll be excited."

3. The odds of winning Wednesday's matchup vs. St. John's -- a team ranked 11 spots lower than Minnesota per kenpom.com? Not good, according to the tempo-free statistics site, which gives the Gophers just a 38 percent chance of winning.

4. Odd stats: through four games, no Minnesota player is averaging more than 4.8 rebounds. And the Gophers' leader in boards per game? That would be freshman guard Nate Mason.

5. What is the team doing for Thanksgiving tomorrow? Well, they'll be practicing at Baruch College in the flatiron district at some point during the day and then having a Thanksgiving meal at the hotel, which Pitino said was the players' choice. Happy Holidays? "Depends," the coach said with a smirk. "If we win [on Wednesday], it will be a good Thanksgiving. If we lose, it will be a bad Thanksgiving."

Big stretch of games ahead? Pitino wants team to aim higher

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: November 25, 2014 - 8:21 AM

Minnesota plays St. John's tomorrow night at Madison Square Garden in the NIT Season Tipoff opening round. Tipoff is at 6 p.m. CT. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU and 1500-am

--

A quick glance at Minnesota's schedule would tell most that these next three games -- two against talented teams in New York, one at Wake Forest -- make up the most formidable stretch of the non-conference schedule. Three games, on the road, where  the Gophers struggles, against teams very capable of beating them, including a potential matchup against what would be Minnesota's second top-ten opponent this year.

These are important for the ultimate outcome of the season, right?

Richard Pitino, for one, isn't having it.

"I think if I were to talk about the importance of these games, that would imply that I don't think we're very good," he said on Monday. Why would I be talking about bubble right now? Because our expectations very, very high."

One of the coach's projects for this season is getting his players to believe it. To reach for, and talk about not just a good "Minnesota" season, but a good season for any team.

Since the start of fall practice, Pitino has voiced concerns about the confidence level of his players -- even the veterans. In most locker rooms he's coached, when he asks which players believe they're bound for the NBA, almost everyone raises their hand. But in Minnesota's locker room, only a couple of hands go up.

Over the summer, when individual players were asked what they were striving for, team-wise this year, at least a couple responded they hadn't talked about it yet.

"We need guys to start getting more confidence, a little bit more of an edge to them and believe in that," Pitino said after Minnesota's exhibition game earlier this month. "So whether that's reality or not, I don't know, but we need guys to start believing it."

The message has apparently gotten across, at least to Andre Hollins.

One might be forgiven if they blinked when hearing him respond to a question about the team's goals.

"We expect to make it to the Final Four and contend for the the Big Ten championship," he told the Star Tribune this week. "In the past, we were settling for mediocrity. We needed to change our attitude."

That starts at the top, where Pitino refuses to assign weight to the coming stretch, unwilling to let his players believe the season is fundamentally affected, no matter how the Gophers fare. Three wins would be a big step toward lofty goals not often talked about in this state. But a few losses shouldn't change their mindset, Pitino believes.

"We're hoping come February, we're talking great seeds, not bubble," he said. "We know that's tough, but that's the way we talk in our locker room."

--

Other notes:

***After watching the film, Pitino said he was content with his team's defense against UMBC -- swiping 13 steals and holding the Retrievers to 37.8 percent shooting -- but was concerned with the fouling and shot selection.

The Gophers had (major) foul trouble against Louisville as well, then tempered the issue against Western Kentucky and Franklin Pierce before the UMBC matchup reignited the problem. The common theme? Louisville and UMBC are both aggressive driving teams, Western Kentucky and Franklin Pierce are not.

But Minnesota will face some good driving guards in the next two games, so calling fouls has been a focus in practices leading up to this trip.

"We've got to be able to pressure without fouling," Pitino said.

***Leading up to this week's NIT Season Tipoff, the Gophers had three non-conference games in five days, an usually packed week created by a late-scheduled game by the NIT.

The circumstances meant Minnesota had to play two games on one day of preparation. Players noted that the experience would help get ready for postseason tournaments, when such time constraints are the norm -- as well as New York. But did that hectic week really help prepare the team or did it just make life more difficult?

Pitino said he liked that his team understood that the practices between would be light for a reason, and didn't take advantage of it.

"I kind of told them 'Don't make me practice you hard on a one-day prep,'" Pitino said. "We should all be mature enough to understand what's important and the work that needs to get done. I liked their maturity, I liked their professionalism in those two one-day preps.

"Now, win or lose [against St. John's], we're going to play an SEC team or Gonzaga, certainly that competition is much, much greater."

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