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
Nate Mason, like many Minnesota players, remembers well the missed chances vs. Ohio State the last time around.
There was the second free throw that didn't fall for him at the end of regulation, missing the opportunity to put an end to the game rather than send it to overtime. Then there was DeAndre Mathieu's turnover on the last play of the extra session, that handed the Gophers the 74-72 loss on Jan. 6.
Today in their hotel, the players and coaches will be watching those moments play out again, on the film, as they prepare for tonight's Big Ten tournament second round matchup vs. the 6-seed Buckeyes.
"We feel like we let them go," Mason said after the 11-seed Gophers' 80-68 win over 14-seed Rutgers on Wednesday night.
Added Mathieu, looking back on those last second foils: "I'm definitely ready for some revenge. There have been a lot of those plays that we've had, so to get that monkey off my back and get it off our team's back would be good."
Realistically, though, that game -- like so many the Gophers have played this year -- wasn't won or lost in those final seconds, rather in the hole they carved; the ups and downs of the inconsistent play that's haunted them all year.
After allowing eventual Big Ten Freshman of the Year D'Angelo Russell to drop 25 points in the first half, Minnesota found itself mired in a 12-point deficit in the second half. The Gophers -- after mostly putting Mathieu and Mason on Russell in the second after Andre Hollins guarded him through most of the first -- shut the dynamic guard down, with him managing just two points the rest of the way.
Tonight, Minnesota will need to have a defensive effort more like that one for the full game if they want to advance again.
"Just making his life miserable," Mason said. "Just try to contain him the best I can, try to do whatever I can against him."
Mathieu was still sporting a black eye on Wednesday after getting mauled in the Penn State game on Sunday.
The senior said he still isn't sure exactly what happened, only that there was some contact somewhere on a fastbreak layup by Mason in the second half, sending him to the ground.
His face was massively swollen after the game and his cheek hadn't quite deflated on Wednesday.
"I got up and Mo [Walker] was looking at me like 'Yo, what's wrong with your face?'" Mathieu said. "I felt it swelling up. It's my first ever black eye, so it's something new.
"I like it though, don't you think it makes me look a little tougher?"
Louisville coach Rick Pitino flew in very briefly for last night's game ahead of his own game in the ACC tournament in just a few hours.
He spoke to the team before the game, specifically addressing the seniors.
"Just knowing that he's actually paying attention to us and we're not even on his team," Mathieu said. "That's big, he left his own team to watch us play. He said he's not here for his son, he's here for us seniors because we've been through a lot this year and just to give us an extra boost of confidence. So to have a legend come and talk to you, just out of the blue, just to make your day a little better, that's something a lot of teams don't get."
Read my full game story on Minnesota's 80-68 win over Rutgers in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament at United Center in Chicago here.
Three quick observations before I go off into the Chicago night:
Rick Pitino in the house. The Louisville coach has a game tomorrow vs. North Carolina in the ACC Tournament at 2 p.m. ET. No matter, he was here for support at the behest of his son, who was apparently riding him on the fact that he hadn't been to a single Minnesota game this season (save for the matchup in Puerto Rico, in which he was coaching from the other bench). He spoke to the team -- and particularly the seniors -- before the win. "It was nice of him to come," Richard said. "I said, 'Where were you at Wisconsin? Could we have gotten you then?'"
They'll need more than that to get past Ohio State. Nice finish and all, but Minnesota can't rely on Joey King to score 20 (even though he has 39 in the last two games now) and it shouldn't need two massive runs in the second half to get past the league's worst team and losers of 14 straight. The Gophers didn't defend Mack n' Jack -- guard Myles Mack and big man Kadeem Jack -- all that hard with the pair netting 33 points between them. Minnesota will have much tougher defensive assignments tomorrow vs. the 6-seed Buckeyes, starting with Big Ten Freshman Player of the Year D'Angelo Russell, who scored 27 on Minnesota in the first half of the two teams' last meeting.
Andre Hollins is off again. The senior has now been held scoreless for 66 consecutive minutes, dating back to the first half of the Penn State game last Sunday. The most discouraging thing about that is he's seemed to disappear in that time, failing to get involved offensively today and not trying other things to get his game going -- like getting to the foul line, Pitino pointed out after the game. Minnesota will need both his shooting touch and a better defensive presence vs. Ohio State tomorrow, to roll past the Buckeyes.
11-seed Minnesota meets 14-seed Rutgers at the United Center tonight at 6 p.m. CT. Watch on Big Ten Network or listen live on 1500-a.m.
Five things to watch as the Gophers try to extend their season:
Energy. Minnesota should win this game and win it easily as Rutgers is a pretty bad basketball team. But the same could have been said about Penn State on Sunday and the Gophers came out looking like they weren't interested in the matchup. Didn't think the Nittany Lions could beat Minnesota at home? Think again. Rutgers is another level of bad but the Gophers aren't above an upset on a neutral court. Minnesota needs to come out raring to go if it wants to ensure avoiding another chapter to its stunning collapse.
Streaky Hollins. In the last four games, we've seen senior guard Andre Hollins score just two points at Wisconsin, rebound for a 17-point performance at Michigan State, nod off again for just five points in the Gophers' biggest game of the year, vs. the Badgers again at home and score 13 points in the first half vs. Penn State and then disappear entirely. The Gophers might be able to get past Rutgers without him, but they won't go far after that if their veteran doesn't figure it out.
Break from perimeter game? One of the big ways inferior teams have managed to top the Gophers this year is with three-point shooting, something Minnesota's defense seems incapable of stopping. The Gophers should be rejoicing then, that Rutgers really can't shoot the long ball much at all -- the Scarlett Knights are averaging 28.9 percent from beyond the arc, with only Nebraska keeping them out of last place in that regard. As a bonus, if Minnesota were to advance, its next opponent, Ohio State, also isn't much of a three-point shooting threat. There is opportunity here, even for a struggling Gophers team.
Mack n' Jack. Minnesota didn't do a great job of slowing Rutgers' senior-junior duo last time around, when the Gophers beat the Scarlett Knights 89-80 in their only meeting this season. Point guard Myles Mack had 26 points and eight assists in that one (although he did have seven turnovers) and big man Kadeem Jack added 19 points and five rebounds. If the pair get a little more supporting help this time around, such performances could be deadly.
Score. If the Gophers take care of business, this one should be a blowout. But Minnesota has the tendency to play up or down to its opponents -- thus all the close games. Eek one out and the Gophers move on, but without much momentum.
Well, here we are. If you're reading this, chances are you're somewhat disillusioned about how this season played out. Minnesota played 11 games decided by six points or fewer and lost eight of them. The Gophers had a couple of road wins that were much more impressive than the two collected last year, but in front of their home crowd -- where Minnesota was 6-2 last year -- they had a losing record. Ultimately, Minnesota has played itself far out of any NCAA tournament conversation and finds itself on the line for even the NIT after the Penn State loss on Sunday.
At this point, I find that most fans are aligned into one of three camps: those who have tuned out entirely, those who are clinging to the wild idea that Minnesota will shock everyone, win the Big Ten Tournament and get to That Place We Always Thought They Would Get, and those who are already eyeing next season, hoping it brings something to look forward to.
Maybe there's a fourth group -- those of you who just want to talk about brown liquor and get through your work day. Cheers to all of you (except, well, the ones who have tuned out entirely because of course you're not reading this). I've got a nice sampling from all of you, I think.
Let's get to it.
Lock for the NIT tournament?
I'm not so sure, Dan. NIT predicting, of course, has not been whittled down to the near-exact science our friends Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm have figured out, so it's really all a guessing game. This prediction, updated after the Penn State loss, has the Gophers in a 5-seed. But Minnesota had no ranked wins and some really bad losses. My guess is that they'll need to win two in the Big Ten tournament to feel safe, and even then, they'll be a lower seed than what we see here.
Which incoming recruits keep us out of the conference basement next season?
While Minnesota likely have another struggling season next year with so much youth on the roster, there is plenty to get excited about. Point guard Kevin Dorsey has end-to-end speed and great vision. Six-three guard Dupree McBrayer can light up the scoreboard. And I'm betting we'll see shooting guard Malik Ellison -- who at 6-6 has just the size coach Richard Pitino is craving in his backcourt -- commit before May. If so, we'll probably be looking at a top-20 class -- something that hasn't been done in Minnesota in a long time.
What did we ever do to you? You know we have an Applebees, right?
Piscataway, New Jersey
Piscataway has it rough. Gets killed on the court. Gets killed in the kitchen (according to my Big Ten food guide published in the Travel section last weekend).
I'm looking forward to a trip there next season to uncover any hidden gems that have evaded Yelp's clutches. If such places still elude, I might be driving right past that Applebees and staying in Manhattan.
You really like Borough over La Grassa or Heyday or Alma or 112 or Travail or La Belle Vie or Spoon & Stable???
I like Borough a lot. I like the approach, I like the atmosphere and I've been blown away with every forkfull. That said, I only had a small space and clearly couldn't list everything I've learned to love about my adopted home. Spoon & Stable and 112 Eatery and La Belle Vie (while a bit stuffy) would certainly be on that list. And I feel strongly about Travail joining it once I make my first excursion after the season is over -- I love Pig Ate My Pizza by the same ownership group! I have to say I found Heyday very underwhelming, and I've had really inconsistent experiences at Alma.
Latest on a practice facility?
Here's our latest facility update, from Joe Christensen. The university is still frantically fundraising and aiming for a groundbreaking for football and basketball facilities in September with completion dates estimated for summer of 2017.
What is the deal with Pitino rarely playing Elliott Eliason through the last stretch of games?
Admittedly, it has been odd / tough to watch as Eliason has sat through the end of his five-year term at Minnesota. I think the obvious answer is playing three centers gets complicated and Pitino feels strongly that he needs to work on freshman Bakary Konate's development.
Eliason has also been less productive this season when he is on the court, and I know his body language and tendency to argue with referees has frustrated Pitino at times.
That doesn't really fully explain why the coach has been quick to abandon his fifth-year senior down the stretch -- especially at times when Minnesota could have benefitted from his defense -- but I don't think it's much more complicated than that. Pitino hasn't seen Eliason as a valuable enough force to take away from Konate's growth opportunities.
Are we going to utilize the scholarships for next year or bag some of them for 2016?
I think some of both. As I mentioned earlier, I think the Gophers add Ellison to the mix and then maybe a JUCO or two, if they can find some big men to fill holes. But I'd be surprised if Minnesota uses all four available this spring -- 2016 will be a light recruiting class with only two seniors (Joey King and Carlos Morris) graduating the year before, so the Gophers could use the extras.
Which gives the struggling Gopher defense the best chance going forward: zone or man-to-man?
Hard to say because neither seem to stop the three-pointer, which is Minnesota's biggest problem right now. I think Pitino is best off playing a mix of both, as he has, and hoping his players get out on shooters and he keeps the opponent somewhat off-balance.
I like young Richard but is there a chance a more experienced coach might not have lost all of those [close games]? Or is it the players?
Obviously when a team loses that many close games, folks look to the head coach for the answers. And part of that is fair. There are certainly a few games where play-calling or strategizing COULD have netted a different result -- take his failure to call a timeout and set up a last-second play in Minnesota's final possession vs. Ohio State. But at the end of the day, you can't call it one or the other. Pitino can't make King make both his free throws vs. Penn State, and he can't make any of those three good looks the Gophers got in their last possession at Nebraska fall either. It's been a combination of things, and a very unlucky one.
Wanting to know top 3 value scotch choices please. Just starting to dabble.
Happy to oblige, ALT. First off, you have to spend a little money. You don't want to sip a mixing scotch and cheap, young scotch tastes like a different spirit altogether. That said, there is no reason to frivolously throw your cash around: there are plenty of deals to be found. Here are a few of my favorites with a great bang for your buck:
Laphroaig 10 yr, approx. $45: Smoky and sweet.
Talisker 10 yr, approx. $50: Spicy and lingering.
Glenfarcas 10 yr, approx. $45-50: Lighter and sweeter.
Highland Park 12 yr, approx. $45: Big and complex.
Lagavulin 16 yr, approx. $70-80: Go ahead, splurge a little and try this heavily peated masterpiece.
Last night's award show came and went, and for the second consecutive year, no Minnesota players were called.
Coach Richard Pitino, who earlier in the day had said he was "not sure" whether any of his players were deserving of such honors, wasn't overly surprised.
"I don't think anybody individually had a great year and that's why you see nobody was on first, second or third team," he said. "I don't think anybody over the whole course of the season had a great individual year."
The Gophers were one of just three teams to not receive a single nod. The others were Big Ten Tournament 14-seed Rutgers -- Minnesota's opponent on Wednesday -- and Michigan, whose guard Caris LeVert likely would have received some sort of honor if healthy.
Seniors Mo Walker (media) and Andre Hollins (media and coaches) did receive honorable mentions.
Hollins has struggled to get past that gray area in the last three years. Monday marked Walker's first honorable mention, but it was still a far cry from what many had projected we'd be talking about this time of year, before the season. Then, Pitino and Walker both echoed the same hope: that he'd be one of the better big men in the conference.
"It just shows that people are kind of recognizing what I've been doing this year," Walker said of the honorable mention. "I've put in a lot of work, I've worked really hard for this. So it's good to get some kind of recognition."
Added Pitino: "There are a lot of good big men in this league, so I don't think he has anything to be ashamed of, Mo doesn't by getting honorable mention. I thought from where he was to where he is now, he made significant improvement."
One thing he was surprised about? That point guard Nate Mason -- who averaged 9.6 points, 2.9 rebounds and a 2.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio -- wasn't included in the All-Freshman team.
That team included Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell and Jae'Sean Tate, Indiana's James Blackmon Jr., Maryland's Melo Trimble, Northwestern's Bryant McIntosh.
"Nate Mason, in my opinion, has had a very good freshman season," Pitino said. "He hasn't really hit a wall at all. Most freshmen do that ... I thought personally he should have been [on] the all-freshman team. But there were some good ones on there, so he was a borderline guy. But now he's going to be a guy that everybody talks about. Will he fall into the trap of not making a jump? Because he's got to expand his game."
Walker on facing 11-seed Minnesota facing 14-seed Rutgers tomorrow. "Just like we feel like we can beat anybody in the conference, we know we can lose to anybody in this conference. We're trying not to take anybody for granted. We know they are a good team, they have a lot of talent. We're going to prepare for them just like we would prepare for anybody else."
|Sports (3)||Basketball (9)|
|College basketball (1067)||Gophers coaches (362)|
|Gophers players (961)||Tubby Smith (37)|
|Williams Arena (10)||Gophers game day (43)|
|Gophers postgame (6)||NCAA (3)|
|The Big Dance (8)||Gophers awards and honors (1)|
|Gophers post season (4)||Gophers roster moves (5)|
|Minnesota colleges (1)|