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 summer ago, Elliott Eliason was at a crossroads.
The University of Minnesota center, coming off a season in which he played just 13.7 minutes a game, was unsure of where he fit in new coach Richard Pitino's system. Eliason was unproven and overweight. Outside of the program, conversations about the Gophers dual centers -- he and Mo Walker -- focused on just how much of a liability that position could be.
Twelve months later, things are different. Eliason, who dropped 20 pounds before the season started, had a standout defensive year, compiling 244 rebounds and 72 blocks while platooning with Walker to create a formidable twosome at the five-spot. Heading into the fall, the pair are established seniors, each with very different but equally promising skill sets that could make the competition for starter a fierce one. The summer, for both players, was about tweaking and getting stronger.
"It's a lot different because obviously, we kind of know what to expect from the coaching staff this year," he said. "We have a clear vision."
I caught up with Eliason just before he headed back to his hometown, Chadron, Neb., to chat about how things have gone since the offseason began.
What are you focusing on the most this summer? You lost all that weight last year. Are you happy with where you are?
Definitely. I'm at a place that [the coaching staff is] comfortable with me at so now it's more about body fat percentage, trying to focus in on strength goals. We're doing a lot more skill work this summer. On the court, I'm doing a lot of shooting jump shots and free throws, and working on some back-to-the-basket moves. I've been working with our [coaches] to just kind of be strong with the ball so I'll be able to make a better back-to-the-basket move. I really want to improve my free-throw percentages [which was 56.5 percet last season].
In terms of changing your body fat, what are you tweaking about what you were already doing?
It was a lot of diet stuff. Obviously, I'm doing a lot of running. But also, it's just cutting things out that seemed pretty normal but you don't really need them anymore. I don't eat as many carbohydrates anymore. I'm never going to be a guy that's four percent body fat or really low, but it's definitely gotten below what it was before -- I think they're happy with what I've done this summer.
Are you doing a lot more lifting this summer as well?
Yes. I don't have to worry about losing weight, I'm just worrying about getting stronger. So because of that, I think I've seen a lot more improvement than I did the year before. [Strength and Conditioning] coach [Shaun] Brown is good at tweaking things when he sees something's not working for you. Different things don't work the same for different guys. A lot of the guys have gotten a lot stronger over a pretty short period of time. I think it will be good to have those couple other months when we get back to kind of finish out that program and then get started with practices.
Has coach Richard Pitino had a different approach with you guys this year in summer workouts now that he spent so much time implementing his new system last year?
Last year he was always at everything. I think it's because he wanted to show he was the new coach, he wanted to be involved with everything. But we didn't really get to know the styles or even the personalities of all our assistant coaches. I think when we turned in our offseason reviews that showed. We talked about it at the end of the season. He really wants us to build those relationships because he knows how important they are that we trust and have a good relationship with all the coaching staff, not just him. So he gave, in individual instruction, those guys a lot of responsibility and they basically ran the show this summer. With him, when we all got together he would talk to us or he'd be hanging out in the weight room but he wouldn't be really leading the session. I think he wanted to take a step back and kind of observe the workouts instead of being in the middle of them.
Have you thought about your goals for yourself or for the team next year yet?
We'll get together when we come back [from back] and talk and set those goals in stone then. And individually, we'll get together with the coaches and come up with goals for ourselves. I have some ideas but I need to make sure we're on the same page first.
What about in terms of your defensive rebounding potential. Have you thought about potentially leading the Big Ten in that category?
I know I was on track to last year, starting off the season so well. And the first half of Big Ten, defensive rebounding I was right there. I think I stayed top five the whole year. And blocked shots were up there too. It's kind of the goal. It's a lofty goal especially with so many talented bigs in the league ... that's kind of the thought process, to be there or right there.
Offensively, you were less consistent last year after getting off to a strong start. Did you ever feel like you were in a rut or was your mindset changing as you realized your value on the defensive end more?
At times I felt like I was in a rut. I just struggled to score at times. But the strategy was a little different, there weren't as many opportunities sometimes. Early season, there were a lot more minutes. Just different factors made it happen. Other times, it was just that's what they wanted me to do, play defense and go get a bunch of rebounds. That's what I do best. But obviously, I think it's going to take more of a scoring threat out of me to consistently stay on the floor. Mo came on really strong last year. He was a great scoring threat down low and it was huge for us.
Near the end of the season last year, Pitino talked a lot about toughness, both physically and mentally and sited the team's lack of it as the base for a few key losses, including the second-round game vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament. How much have you guys as players thought about that? We've been trying to work on that through competition more than anything. We'll have competitions against each other in the weight room or playing around in the gym. It's always for something. Just to ensure that open gym doesn't become not very competitive.The thought is to be really competitive all the time. Always scrapping kind of helps to get into a routine that you're always going to be that way. It's tough. It's something you've got to do all the time.
Have the pickup games gotten pretty intense?
Things have been getting pretty heated... it's good to get us back in the flow.
Just a lot of bumps and bruises. I don't think we've had a broken nose yet, thank goodness. But there was definitely a lot of competition and bad feelings sometimes, but it's probably for the best.
What does the winning team get?
The loser has to run or do more reps in the weight room; the captains will [hold the players accountable] there. If not that, it's just for pride, because you don't want to hear DeAndre [Mathieu] or someone giving you smack for the next couple of days.
This is your last year here, your fifth since you redshirted. Your collegiate career is almost over! Have you started to get sentimental at all yet?
I haven't yet but I'm sure once the fall rolls around and you start gearing up and everyone starts talking about the season, it will probably become that way. Right now, summer, it still seems far enough away, it's not real yet. But it's coming and it's coming fast.
What will you do with your free time back in Chadron on your break?
Well, I'll definitely take a little relaxation time. And then I'll beat up on my brother [Spencer, who will be playing at North Dakota State in the fall] in the gym, try to make him better, and try to get better myself.
University of Minnesota strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown jokes that the Gophers coaching staff keeps a daily lottery on how much weight JUCO transfer Carlos Morris has added.
As the players headed home for late summer break this weekend, the junior-to-be has put on a full 20 pounds since arriving on campus in May. Brown asked the lanky Morris to consume six meals a day, plus snacks since he showed up, in order to build mass quickly and ease him to a Big Ten-ready playing weight.
The staff is pleased with Morris' progress thus far.
"He's a real competitor," Brown said. "He's a real focus kid. He's very coachable."
Morris' balanced game and defensive ability probably keeps him as the favorite to replace the graduated Austin Hollins at small forward, although sophomore Daquein McNeil will likely give him a good run. But Morris promises to bring a much different look to the position than the Gophers had a year ago. The Florida native is not the shooter that Hollins was, but is a much better ball handling and penetrator than his former counterpart.
"You're going to be excited to watch him," Brown said. "It's a different threat, which means he has to be more physical."
That is where the weight gain comes in. Morris has done such a good job on his own -- Brown set the goal of 3/4 of a pound per week -- that midway though the summer the strength and conditioning coach stopped making him send pictures of every bite, which Morris did at the outset. But the staff still wants him to continue to bulk up throughout his two remaining years of eligibility. Currently, he's at 181 pounds, still relatively thin for his 6-foot-5 frame. If he ever gains two pounds and then loses it by the next weigh in, Brown said, the whole team is punished with running. Ultimately, the staff hopes Morris will build to about 195 pounds, Brown said, a size that would give him a good chance of continuing his playing career after college.
"That's the biggest thing he's got to do, Brown said. "If he can do that and work on his shot, then the kid is going to be special."
Today marks the end of the first summer workout schedule, and the start of the official countdown to the season, which begins with fall practices in October.
In the meantime, players will head home for a much needed break. University of Minnesota basketball players began to leave campus earlier this week. By the end of Friday, they’ll all be done and headed for a three-week break, the longest stretch they get all year.
They won’t, however, be without basketball “homework” on their escape. Strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown created take-home packets for each individual player, based on the resources available to them in their home towns (some have health club memberships, while others would be lucky to find a good place to run). Generally, the assignments include running, chin-ups and weight lifting for each player.
Awaiting them upon their return will be immediate tests – such as a timed mile run -- to cut through any white lies about how much working out they did on vacation.
“You’re going to tell when they get back,” Brown said. “So it’s kind of like fishing. You throw a line in the water and hope to catch something. If they don’t [work out enough while they’re gone], the only thing you can do is punish them with more work for the time they lost.”
A few notes on the early summer workouts:
*After gaining a lot of "good weight and muscle" early, point guard DeAndre Mathieu has leveled out around 175 pounds, Brown said. That gain represents about 23 pounds since last September, when the Knoxville native first arrived on campus. Along with the gain have come increased strength levels for a guard that was already extremely compact. "I do this for a living, so I know when guys move certain weights, they're pretty freakin' strong," Brown said. "And he is one strong dude." Brown also pointed out that Mathieu is among the most flexible and agile on the team as well.
*One off-season after dropping 60 pounds, center Mo Walker has been tasked only with maintaining. The Gophers were happy with the weight at which he finished the season, preferring for the more fleet-footed Elliott Eliason to be the "lighter center." Said Brown: "He's got a range to stay in and he does it."
*Joey King has added 20 pounds since last summer, going from around 216 then to 236 now. The Gophers want him to stay right around that weight for his final two seasons with the team. "That's perfect," Brown said.
*Who is the most conditioned player on the team right now? Mathieu again, Brown said. A little more than a week ago, he gave the players a spontaneous mile test. Mathieu casually posted a five-minute mile. "Without practicing," Brown said. "I mean, that's moving ... and he wasn't even throwing up, he could have gone faster."
*The biggest surprise so far in Brown's eyes? That distinction belongs to Daquein McNeil. The sophomore, who last year gained valuable spot minutes and became something of a defensive specialist, has put on about 10 to 12 pounds, Brown said, while integrating smoothly and working extremely hard. "His strength, what he lifts per pound, body weight, he's got a big upside," Brown said. "And he's shown it. He's gotten very strong ... rightfully or wrongfully, you have these preconceived ideas of who they are and what their levels are, and this kid has just been a really pleasant surprise. He's ahead in a lot of the areas I thought he would struggle."
Freshman, mid-major transfers and JUCOs are far from sure things, University of Minnesota strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown knows.
So for Brown, the quick transitions of this year's newcomers are enough to foster some ribbing.
"For how pieced together this class was, I say [to the assistant coaches], 'Coach, I'm not worried about anything," Brown said with a chuckle. "You got these guys here -- and now you've got time to recruit. [The] 2015 [class] will be a piece of cake."
Of course, finding and signing good players, especially at a place like Minnesota which hasn't consistently competed in the Big Ten or made the NCAA tournament in recent years, always takes plenty of traveling, time and a strong vision. But considering head coach Richard Pitino and his staff managed to secure this six-player class for the fall -- having begun the recruiting process only seven months before the early signing period -- Brown has ample confidence in the future.
International recruits Bakary Konate and Gaston Diediou both won't be on campus until the Gophers resume practice in the fall. But JUCO Carlos Morris, transfer Zach Lofton and true freshmen Nate Mason and Josh Martin have all quickly accelerated, Brown said.
"They're home runs," he said of the newcomers, who have exceeded his expectations in terms of immediate integration to a high-major program.
Brown said the biggest challenge for newcomers at this level is getting them adjusted to high-major Division I life and the coaches' expectations. While Lofton, whom Pitino has complimented for his "NBA-ready body," has the luxury of a redshirt year to get prepared for the Big Ten, in Brown's mind that only means more time to work. When the strength and conditioning coach informed the transfer the two of them would be working out together daily, regardless of what the team is doing, Lofton's mouth gaped momentarily. In general, Brown said, it's important for the newcomers to learn early on that the culture at Minnesota is probably very different from the one they left. There is a strict schedule of tutoring, practices, workouts and classes necessary to being a successful student athlete. If a workout or practice is at 2 p.m., Brown wants players should be taped and with their shoes tied by 1:45.
"It's just getting them to become almost robots with that stuff," Brown said. "You can't function as a team until they learn those habits."
So far, Brown is pleased with what he's seen. Lofton is steadily progressing, Martin and Morris have each put on needed bulk, with the latter tipping the scales at 20 added pounds since he arrived in May. Mason has caught on quickly with the veteran guards already on the roster.
"They're different kids," Brown said. "They're what we needed in a lot of ways."
Earlier this summer, Minnesota assistant coach Dan McHale had a message for Joey King.
He needed to work on his lateral quickness.
As usual, the directive was met with a stare, and very few words.
An hour later, McHale spotted King in the gym, training rubber bands looped around his ankles, doing slides.
"He is a kid that is coachable," McHale said of the junior-to-be forward. "Joey King is our hard hat guy."
Head coach Richard Pitino and the rest of the staff have sited physical and mental toughness as the team's biggest weaknesses a year ago. King, McHale said, is the epitome of how they want the team to be. He works hard. He's thick-skinned. He reads and understands the scouting reports as well as anyone. And he's not afraid to sacrifice his body in the name of competition.
"He would dive off the stage of the Barn if you asked him to," McHale said."
This summer, King has been working on getting quicker while also putting on bulk. He's added about 20 pounds since last fall, according to strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown. Initially, the staff was concerned the mass would slow him down further; instead it's actually increased his vertical -- these days, King is dunking a lot more in practice. Even so, the staff knows that's not very realistic to expect. Two weeks ago, Pitino told a story about throwing a ball off the backboard for super athletic freshman Josh Martin to fling in the bucket. Afterwards, King wanted his turn.
"I said 'No, Joey,'" Pitino joked. "That's not your game."
The other major project of the summer for King is improving his ballhandling.
"We want to put him in situations where he can handle it and then getting his shot off quicker," McHale said.
One thing the team isn't giving a huge focus to is King's fouling proclivity. A year ago, he had 101 fouls -- averaging 2.7 a game -- which was second only to center Elliott Eliason. But the coaches don't want to take away the aggressiveness that makes King who he is.
"As frustrated as we got in the Florida State game when we were shorthanded and told him not to foul (and he had four), you can't do anything about it," McHale said. "The kid just plays so hard. He plays harder than anyone, he has the ultimate chip on his shoulder and he knows how appreciative he is to play for Minnesota."
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