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
Next season, DeAndre Mathieu faces a host a new challenges.
In his senior year, the 5-foot-9 Mathieu will be one of the Minnesota's leaders, both on the court and off. His steady presence and occasional dominance through last season suggest he has room in his game to grow and improve, but this time around, scouting reports around the Big Ten will have the point guard's name highlighted.
Now, the Knoxville, Tenn. native is adding fatherhood to that mix.
At 12:23 a.m. on July 3, Mathieu reported via Twitter that his girlfriend had birthed their son, Elijah Deion Mathieu.
"Life as I know it has changed," he wrote, attaching the image of young Mathieu, pictured right.
Mathieu was in Maysville, KY -- where his girlfriend lives -- and present at the hospital for the birth.
Later, Gophers coach Richard Pitino tweeted his congratulations to the couple.
"A lot of late nights and early mornings ahead of you!" he wrote.
Former Minnesota basketball player and track star Wally Ellenson will be transferring to Marquette this fall.
Ellenson's mother, Holly, tweeted the news on Wednesday afternoon.
"It is official Wally is part of the Marquette Basketball Family," she wrote, along with a picture of her son signing his National Letter of Intent.
Ellenson will continue his dual-sport campaign with the Golden Eagles, high jumping and joining the roster of first-year basketball coach, Steve Wojciechowski.
"We are excited for him!" Holly Ellenson told the Star Tribune in a text.
Ellenson, who was originally recruited by former Gophers basketball coach Tubby Smith, played at Minnesota for two years before opting to leave the team in February. The 6-6 rising junior is a twice consecutive first-team All American in high jumping and last month finished as the national runner-up in the high jump at the NCAA Division I Championships in Eugene, Ore.
The Rice Lake, Wis. native averaged 1.8 points and 1.3 rebounds in 6.9 minutes a game for the Gophers last year. The previous season, Ellenson -- who broke his left hand before play began -- averaged two points and 0.8 rebounds in 5.3 minutes a game after Smith pulled his redshirt near the end of the non-conference schedule.
Marquette is also heavily recruiting Ellenson's younger brother, Henry, a five-star athlete in the 2015 class.
July is here and Minnesota summer basketball is well under way.
Four of the six newcomers who will be joining the Gophers in the upcoming season are on campus and beginning the integration -- guards Zach Lofton and Carlos Morris arrived in mid May, and combo guard Nate Mason and forward Josh Martin followed over Father's Day weekend.
Already, the preparation for next year has begun. The NCAA mandates that teams are allowed eight weeks of practices -- for two hours a week -- during the summer months, and programs can decide how they want to lay out their schedule within those constraints.
The Gophers began practicing the week of June 16th -- so they are midway through their third week back now.
"Last year was more hands on, practicing, implementing system, and learning how the guys worked," assistant coach Dan McHale said. "This year is more individual workouts, getting the guys stronger. It's been really good."
The early efforts are already showing. Several of the players have put on significant beneficial weight. DeAndre Mathieu has added in excess of ten pounds to his compact frame. Martin has packed on seven pounds of muscle in the short time he's been in Dinkytown. Joey King has put on more than 20 since this time last season. Morris, however, wins the prize for the summer so far, having tipped the scale by 16 pounds since arriving over Memorial Day weekend.
"A Shaun Brown special," said McHale, referencing the Gophers basketball strength and conditioning coach, who has each player on an individual program based on their needs.
Only the two foreign newcomers have yet to arrive. McHale said he hopes Mali native Bakary Konate, who is still in Kansas, and power forward and Senegal native Gaston Diedhiou, who is still in the Canary Islands, where he played last year, will arrive by mid August. Both are simply dealing with "a little international red tape," McHale said.
As the summer extends, the team's workouts will shift somewhat. The beginning of July brings three consecutive weeks of evaluation periods, meaning that the coaches will be on the road constantly from Wednesday through Sunday during the first, second and third full weeks of July.
In that time -- the first evaluation period begins July 9 -- the team will transition from mostly individual workouts to team practices on Mondays and Tuesday for one hour each. For the rest of the week, the players will work out with Brown individually, on a voluntary basis.
* According to a source, no official visits have been set up yet but several high school prospects are discussing dates. Most official visits are arranged in early August.
* In the meantime, a handful of 2015 targets have visited unofficially. Power forward Alex Illikainen, of Grand Rapids (who recently transferred to Brewster Academy in New Hampshire) and point guard Kevin Dorsey, of Virginia, both visited unofficially earlier this week while guard Jarvis Johnson, of Minneapolis and Dupree McBrayer, of New Jersey, were each in town earlier in June.
Former Minnesota point guard Al Nolen was pleased when, early in the Gophers non-conference schedule last year, he watched from the Williams Arena stands as tiny DeAndre Mathieu drove to the paint and peppered the basket with shots.
Nolen, a Minneapolis native and lifelong Gophers fan, was taken aback when he saw the gutty performances and a quick knack for leadership spring from the undersized guard as the season continued.
And even he'll admit it, Nolen was pretty darn surprised when he saw Mathieu maintain that tenacity, heart and occasional dominance throughout the challenging Big Ten slate.
But Nolen -- who is now the Dean of Students for Anthony Middle School in South Minneapolis -- didn't really get to know just who Mathieu is until this summer, when he had the opportunity to spend some time around the fellow floor general.
These days, Nolen comes around campus occasionally, and works out with the Gophers in their open gyms. There, he's watched a dedicated young player work to systematically improve a game that, a year ago, already impressed just about everyone who watched.
"I've got really high, high praise for DeAndre Mathieu," Nolen said in a phone interview on Monday. "I think he's an excellent player, and person. I've talked to him a little bit and he's really a good guy, he's really a hard worker. Watching him out there, he's a great leader on the floor, a lot of teammates look up to him. He's great with ball handling. He can get down there with the bigger players and score down low. I think he's really going to be key for Minnesota next year."
Nolen said he loved watching Mathieu -- the first true point guard Minnesota has had since he expired his eligibility in 2011 -- become the steady presence the Gophers were craving, especially with Andre Hollins enduring late-season injury woes and Austin Hollins largely inconsistent throughout the Big Ten schedule.
It was evident how the team gelled behind their new pacesetter, and how close Mathieu and new coach Richard Pitino became in the process. Nolen's critical eye noticed, too, how it was often Mathieu who represented the team to the media; the player who both bestowed the praise and took the fall.
"As an extension of the coach, you have to be a leader," Nolen said. "And that's exactly what DeAndre is. I'm pretty sure him and coach Pitino have the best relationship on the team because coach Pitino has to rely on him on the floor to basically get the guys to do what [he] wants.
"I think it's very important to come in and ... take the bull by the horn and be that leader, take responsibility, when it's good and when it's bad, be able to take criticism and handle yourself professionally. He's done a great job with that."
Now, Nolen sees a guard working hungrily to take the next steps. Mathieu -- who made his reputation by fearlessly driving into the paint and taking on guys who towered, head a shoulders, over him -- has already added in excess of ten pounds to his compact 5-foot-9 frame, according to strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown.
"He's definitely packing a lot of muscle," Nolen said of the guard that averaged 12 points and 4.2 assists in his first Big Ten season after transferring from Central Arizona College. "When I've seen him this summer, he looked a lot stronger, quicker, his jump shot looked great. He looked like he's really been focused and really been working hard."
And when Mathieu leaves the weight room, he goes straight to the court, where he's putting up shot after shot on his own. A year ago, Mathieu shot 51.1 percent from the field, and 48.9 percent from three-point range, but often seemed much more comfortable steamrolling to the rim in traffic than stepping back to take a shot from the perimeter.
"After seeing him play, I know a lot of people thought he needed to improve on his shooting and I'll say this summer, he's definitely improved on that," Nolen said. "He's definitely improved his shot. I think he's just been in the gym a lot more. With shooting, it's confidence he's getting in the gym and getting that confidence to knock down that shot."
The workload, along with the Knoxville native's gritty style of play and seemingly limitless passion, is enough to earn Mathieu a new nickname, at least when Nolen is around.
"I like to call him Mighty Mouse," the alum said. "He's the littlest guy on the floor, but then he'll surprise you, going down there with the big guys, coming in real physical."
Nolen would be lying, too, if he didn't say the rising senior reminds him a little of himself: a tough point guard who doesn't shy away from contact, and who seems to salivate at mismatches and folks who don't believe he's good enough.
But because he respects Mathieu's intellect and work ethic so much, Nolen said the only words close to advice he's doled out to the younger guard are simply reminders to keep being his hard-nosed self.
Next year, Nolen knows, with the Big Ten having been put on notice last season, th goal will only become more challenging. Everyone's anticipation will grow, including Nolen's.
"He definitely was a piece that they needed and he's really exceeded my expectations," Nolen said. "So I have higher ones for him now, this next year, knowing how good he is."
This past winter, Oto Osenieks made the tough decision to leave behind one major facet of his life and begin the next phase.
Positioned directly at the intersection of the past (Osenieks' playing career at Minnesota) and the future (pursuing his second dream, to coach) is surgery on his left knee.
That knee, which has chronically bothered Osenieks, was the cause of his early retirement from playing. The surgery, which Osenieks told the Star Tribune he will have on Tuesday, will hopefully allow him the stability to continue with what's to come.
"I am relieved," Osenieks told the Star Tribune via text. "I just wish they could fix it so I could play."
Instead, the former Gopher forward plans to stay on with the team as a graduate assistant this fall.
Osenieks, 24, had one year of eligibility remaining due to redshirting his freshman year, but made the decision to forego it after the pain in his knee resurfaced last season. The 6-foot-8 native of Latvia manned the power forward spot in the starting rotation at the beginning of the year last season and started for 23 of his 31 games. After being replaced in the opening lineup by Joey King, Osenieks came off the bench for a handful of games before sitting for the first time, in Minnesota's home game vs. Iowa on Feb. 25. Shortly afterward, the university announced that Osenieks' playing career was done.
He averaged 5.3 points and 2.8 rebounds on the year, shooting 29.5 percent from three-point range while achieving new career highs in points (14 -- on Nov. 21) and rebounds (6 -- on Jan. 2).
On senior night, coach Richard Pitino brought in Osenieks -- who was honored that night, along with the rest of the seniors -- as a late substitution off the bench, for a few seconds against Penn State. The forward later played spot minutes against Florida State and SMU in the Gophers' NIT semi-final and championship games, helping to plug holes with Elliott Eliason's ankle injury and King's foul trouble creating depth issues in the frontcourt.
The concern has always been that prolonged time on the court -- with bone grinding against bone -- would prevent Osenieks from having a normal life after his college career.
On Tuesday, Osenieks' knee will be "scoped out," he said, to remove the cartilage that has been building and then smoothen the bones in the joint and the back of his knee cap. He hopes the result will be that he's able to function normally and help coach the team through drills next season.
Osenieks has had two previous surgeries on the knee, in Latvia.
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