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: Five of Minnesota's six Big Ten losses within two possessions

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: January 21, 2015 - 12:11 AM

Read my full game story on Minnesota's 52-49 loss at Nebraska on Tuesday night here.

Three quick observations before I try to find a late-night glass of something in this town:

It's kind of unbelievable. Of the Gophers' six conference losses, a stunning five of them have come by two possessions or fewer. Is Minnesota terrible? Is Minnesota on the verge of being great? It's all very mind-numbing, although I think most are leaning toward the former right now, especially after that performance. On the one hand, the Gophers have competed with EVERYONE except for Maryland. On the other, it's, like, really basic things that have held them back from winning those games: Missing free throws. Failing to get big rebounds. Turning over the ball. Good teams don't do these things. And they definitely don't do them over and over again. Minnesota doesn't seem to have the killer instinct it needs to shut Big Ten teams down.

Black is white; white is black. Remember when we were talking about Andre Hollins' slump being one of the prime reasons for the Gophers' 0-5 start? Tonight, he was just about the only thing Minnesota had going. Carlos Morris, Mo Walker, Nate Mason and DeAndre Mathieu -- four of the team's other top six scorers -- all combined to go just 5-for-27 from the field. But even Hollins' strong start (13 points in the first half), cooled in the second as he went 2-for-10 from the field and 4-for-8 from the free-throw line in the second. I'm not great at math, but that doesn't seem like enough scoring. 

Please don't call this a "great defensive battle." How good of a defensive team does one have to be to hold another high-major college basketball team scoreless from the field for seven-plus minutes. And BOTH teams did it. Coach Richard Pitino, trying to spin what he can these days, sat down at the postgame podium and announced that his team had just played its best execution game of the year. But what about the unforced turnovers? What about the repeated fouling? What about the ten missed free throws, giving the Gophers their lowest percentage (47.4) from the charity stripe of the year? It sounded like a coach trying to prop up the confidence of his team when all else has failed -- and can you blame him? Make no mistake: this one was sloppy on both ends, but just a little bit sloppier on the Gophers' side.


Bonus:

Gas! The reward for covering tonight's game was our first glance at the mysterious international power forward, Gaston Diedhiou, another big piece of the future the Gophers hope will be better than the present. It's clear he's still learning the system and the plays, but the raw talent and potential -- and most of all, for a small Minnesota team, the size -- is evident. If the Gophers continue this slide, we'll only see more and more of him.

*Joey King had an ice pack wrapped around his back as he got on the team bus to head to the airport. The power forward got an elbow to his shoulder blade late in the second half. 

Gophers pregame: Minnesota needs offense to stay hot vs. Nebraska

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: January 20, 2015 - 4:51 PM

Minnesota plays at Nebraska tonight at 7:30 p.m. CT. Watch on Big Ten Network or listen live on 1500-a.m.

Read: Can the Gophers, like last season's Nebraska, turn around a bad start and make the NCAA tournament? Minnesota is faced with a much different conference climate and isn't helped by its weak schedule. 

Preview here.

Five keys to the Gophers starting a win streak vs. the Huskers:

Calling all shooters. Anyone who took a good look at Minnesota's second-half defense vs. Rutgers understands just how important it is for the Gophers' offense to get rolling. That, however, is not an easy assignment against Nebraska, owner of the tenth-ranked defensive efficiency in college basketball, according to analyst Ken Pomeroy's metrics. The Huskers limit good shots inside and out, and rank second in the league in three-point defense, holding opponents to just 29.1 percent of their attempts. But the Gophers have relied on the long ball to be competitive this season and need to continue to hit shots to keep their one post scorer (Mo Walker) from being doubled the whole time.

Forget history. The only thing standing between the Gophers and their brutal 0-5 slump to start the year is a win over a Rutgers team that was expected to man the league's basement this year. Plus, Minnesota still has won just two road games in coach Richard Pitino's tenure, a stat that is becoming more and more weighty with each road trip. The coach said in the last two games, the team was playing with the "weight of the world" on its shoulders. To move on and turn Saturday's win into a trend instead of an anomaly, the Gophers will need to let all of that go. Zero-and-six is egregious, but 1-5 isn't exactly uplifting either.

Pin Petteway. Have you heard the rumors about Nebraska star Terran Petteway struggling to live up to preseason expectations? Well that was some hype because although Petteway isn't a national player of the year candidate, he has improved his scoring (he's second in the Big Ten with 19.4 points per game), rebounding, assist and shooting percentages. He's still dangerous in the open court. He's still one of the most prolific pick-and-roll guys in basketball. And he's still the team's go-to in an exaggerated way. He takes 34.8 percent of his team's shots, a percentage that only 14 players nationwide better. Fellow junior Shavon Shields is his wing man, but behind those two, there aren't any reliable scorers. Petteway will be the major focus.

No more same old, same old. Rebounding. Free throws. These issues aren't going away. Rutgers is the only team ranked lower than Minnesota in average defensive rebounds, but even in that matchup, the Gophers got killed on the boards, 39-28. Yikes. Pitino, who has already implemented basic box out drills, said he's been using a bubble on the rim in practice lately, to force players to pursue the ball after every shot. He has to be running out of ideas. And again, on Saturday free throws were a concern. Minnesota went 11-for-17 from the stripe -- shooting less than 70 percent for the 12th time this year. Pitino has the biggest culprits shooting extras before and after practice. Will the Gophers ever reap the benefits of that?

Stay away from turnovers. A reporter pointed his recorder at DeAndre Mathieu and started the question. "Last year you guys went to Nebraska and..." The point guard didn't need to hear the rest. "...and I had seven turnovers? Yeah, yeah, yeah, it won't happen again." Mathieu didn't even remember it as bad as it was -- he actually had nine miscues, not seven. And that insufficiency at the helm of the team was the biggest culprit of the 82-78 loss that spoiled Malik Smith's eight three-pointer night. Well, expect Nebraska to swarm the ball handler once more. It won't always be Mathieu now -- Nate Mason took over the starting job two games ago -- but the Gophers will have to be tight with the ball all the way around if they want a chance because Nebraska will make every possession tough.

Opening Tipoff: Diedhiou recovering from leg injury

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: January 20, 2015 - 10:11 AM

Minnesota plays at Nebraska tonight at 7:30 p.m. CT. Watch on Big Ten Network or listen live on 1500-a.m.

Read: Can the Gophers, like last season's Nebraska, turn around a bad start and make the NCAA tournament? Minnesota is faced with a much different conference climate and isn't helped by its weak schedule. 

Preview here.

--

Still waiting for Gaston

For several games now, coach Richard Pitino has been threatening to play international power forward Gaston Diedhiou. Still, it hasn't happened. 

Saturday, the coach said the reason for the Senegal native's absence in the win over Rutgers is a new leg injury. 

In Friday's practice, Diedhiou tweaked his Iliotibial band, Pitino said, and a day later, it hadn't improved much. The big man hobbled through warmups and trainer Ben Feld recommended he be held out once more.

At this point, only 12 regular-season games remain. Is Pitino starting to think about redshirting Diedhiou to avoid wasting most of a year?

The coach still isn't ruling the possibility out, but he still sounds inclined to play Diedhiou if at all possible. Currently, Minnesota ranks second to last in the league in defensive rebounds. Starting power forward Joey King and backup Charles Buggs are both averaging exactly 1.7  boards in conference play. 

Considering the Gophers' other limitations, the deficit on the glass is a big concern. Diedhiou would offer a bigger, bulkier and more physical presence in the paint than either of the other two options, and his rebounding ceiling is a lot greater as well.

"Part of our rebounding problem is, it's not that it's a lack of effort from Joey and Buggs," Pitino said "They're just not real big guys and they're not naturally great rebounders, so we've got to get [Diedhiou] rolling too."

What's more, the coach said he isn't sure a redshirt would be particularly helpful for Diedhiou, a 21-year-old freshman.

"He's old," Pitino said. "So how beneficial is it going to be for a 25, 26-year-old [to have an extra year]? ... I don't have an answer to the question, to be honest, it's just hard right now. But we've got to prepare him to be able to play [at Nebraska] and then we'll see." 

--

On the slow track

Bakary Konate played in his first game since the Big Ten opener at Purdue on Saturday when Pitino inserted the freshman center in the first half -- ahead of senior backup center Elliott Eliason -- and played him a total of 17 minutes in the win over Rutgers. Konate connected on a jumper on his only field goal attempt, and had one rebound, one assist and three fouls.

Although the Mali native's opportunities have been limited, Pitino said he's satisfied with Konate's development thus far.

"We knew he'd be raw bringing him in," Pitino said. "I think that's just the reality of the situation, we're just going to have to develop big guys. With Bakary it's almost like less is more. The less mistakes he makes, the more he'll play. And I don't think he made a whole lot of mistakes last game except for fouling -- that was probably the biggest issue and he's got to get better at that, he fouls a lot. He made a nice little pick-and-pop jumpshot. He got fouled a lot too, because he's such a big target in the post. I think he's on schedule with where we thought he'd be."

--

Duck, duck, Goose

Elliason, meanwhile, played only four minutes in Saturday's victory, his fewest in Big Ten play. 

Pitino said the demotion, at least for one game, was due partly to Eliason's struggles (just one point and four rebounds in the previous two games and has a 42.4 free-throw percentage on the year) and partly to his dedication to developing Konate on the fly. The latter will likely be Minnesota's starting center next season with both Eliason and starter Mo Walker graduating.

"I thought Elliott had a great attitude on the bench," Pitino said. "Doesn't mean he's not going to play anymore. Every guy is valuable."

Gophers postgame: Much needed win, but plenty of work ahead for Minnesota

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: January 17, 2015 - 4:25 PM

Read my full story on Minnesota's 89-80 win over Rutgers at Williams Arena on Saturday here.

Three quick observations after the Gophers picked up their first conference win:

Finally. In the last four years I've been covering Minnesota hoops, this is the most any Gophers team has needed a win. At first glance this fall, a game against Rutgers at home looked like a pencil-in W. But after Minnesota started 0-5 and the Scarlett Knights showed some scrap vs. Wisconsin (a win) and at Maryland (a near loss), the outlook changed quite a bit. This squad was limping, so just putting one game in the victory column is a big deal. Afterward, the locker room was lively again; the players acted as though they had just crawled out from underneath an arena- sized brick. Whether the Gophers can make a run in the days ahead is another story. But for this team to make any kind of improvements in a season that will likely be harder than most thought all the way around, a spark of hope and a few moments of 'fun' on the court again were necessary.

Andre Hollins is back. It's been a long time coming for the senior guard, and the in between had clearly been weighing on him, even though coach Richard Pitino said one of the reasons he stuck by his veteran in the starting lineup was because his struggles didn't show in practice. Hollins had scored in double digits just twice in the previous seven games, and was shooting less than 40 percent from the field. Pitino could talk about his defense and intangibles all he wanted -- a slump like that from the team's best shooter is always going to have a big impact. The Memphis native made a statement almost instantly that all of that would be changing. Hollins scored a three for the Gophers' first bucket of the game and kept going until he hit 31 -- the second-highest total of his career and the most he's scored since his sophomore season. He came off screens, shot seven threes (tying a career-high), dunked in traffic for the first time ever (Turf toe? Doesn't seem to be a thing) and even played to contact a little bit, something we've seen him shy away from lately. Minnesota will need this version if it's going to make a run. Where would the Gophers have been in this game if Hollins hadn't had a monster game? Not looking so positive.

Still a long ways to go. The Gophers' killer instinct is still a little weak, a fact they made clear in the second half when the foot-over-throat move was just simply lacking. Rutgers charged back several times and Minnesota hit enough big shots to go blow-for-blow with its scrappy opponent, but the defensive pressure was lax and the execution in the half court still needs a lot of work. The Gophers' only strong post defender, Elliott Eliason, got just four minutes of playing time and his struggles, combined with a dose of reality in the 0-5 start, probably has Pitino eying the future -- and Bakary Konate -- a little more. That means Mo Walker will have to get better and the guards will have to be sharper. Minnesota's toughness is still suspect. Rebounding problems -- after losing the boards battle 39-28 -- are not going away. And the free throw concerns? Still there despite Pitino forcing every culprit to shoot extras after practice. Minnesota went 11-for-17 (64.7 percent on Saturday). A run in the stretch ahead and a respectable finish to the season is possible (I said respectable, not NCAA tournament), but the Gophers will have to improve the areas that have plagued them if they want to seize those goals.

Amid slump, Minnesota gets 2016 basketball recruit

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: January 18, 2015 - 6:57 AM

Richard Pitino's present isn't exactly full of posies these days, but the future, anyway, just got a little brighter.

Forward Michael Hurt (2016) committed to Pitino and Minnesota late Friday night, a source confirmed on Saturday morning.

Pat Ruff of the Rochester Post-Bulletin first reported the news.

Hurt, a 6-foot-6 Rochester John Marshall junior, is in Rivals' top-150 players for that class. Both Pitino and assistant coach Ben Johnson watched Hurt play vs. Fairbault on Friday night. Afterward, Hurt made his commitment. 

"I talk to Coach Johnson a lot, he’s been the main one recruiting me, and I’ve talked to Coach Pitino a lot more since they offered me," Hurt told Rivals' Ryan James. "I really like Coach Pitino’s style. People compare it a lot to (Florida coach) Billy Donovan’s up-tempo style."

Hurt also had offers from Nebraska, Northwestern, Northern Iowa and Princeton among others. 

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