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
Read my full game story on tonight's 86-76 Minnesota win over Furman here.
Three quick observations:
Blessing in disguise? The attitude in the locker room postgame was hardly defeated. It was markedly upbeat, same with coach Richard Pitino in the postgame press conference. Everyone echoed the same mantra: "We needed this." The Gophers had been blowing out teams for six straight contests. It was getting boring. It would be imaginable if most any team in their position looked at the statistics -- finding themselves No. 1 in assists and top five in steals -- and start to think its above the fray that is surrounding the Big Ten right now. Tonight was a lessen in humility. The Gophers' defense can be beat. The Gophers can be stunned. It wasn't the greatest performance but just like these last few wins, not too much can be taken from one game, one very hot shooting team and a little off defense. If Minnesota is smart, it will learn from this one.
Nate Mason is the real deal. When was the last time the Gophers had a freshman who could step up and calmly nail three-pointers down the stretch, who has been as consistently good as Mason has been -- to such an extent that after his 15-point, six-steal game on Friday, we didn't even talk about him in the postgame conference. Minnesota has something special on its hands and the rest of the Big Ten doesn't even know about it yet.
May be some time before we see Gaston Diedhiou. With the Gophers straining to simply win the game on Monday, there was no chance for Pitino to insert the newest scholarship member of the team, even if he wanted to. But in giving us the evaluation he promised after the game, the coach made it clear that he probably won't be throwing Diedhiou in any time soon, garbage minutes or not. "We were too consumed with getting Gas in the mix," Pitino said. "He has no idea what he's doing. Nor should he. It's not like an NBA player was traded from the Rockets to the Timberwolves and he knows the game, he understands terminology. He has no idea what he's doing, and it's not his fault ... Gas is not in a position to succeed right now. So I think he's going to be a very, very good player. But he doesn't need games. The natural thought is get him in there, get him feeling good. No, that's not the answer. He needs practice."
Andre Hollins not at 100 percent. The senior guard is battling a case of turf toe on his left foot, sustained after the win vs. Seattle on Friday. Hollins, who didn't practice at all on Saturday or Sunday, played 25 minutes due to foul trouble but went just 3-for-7 from the field.
"I was kind of worried that he wasn't going to play to be honest," Pitino said.
Tonight's game vs. Furman tips at 7 p.m. Watch on ESPN3 (free for subscribers) or listen live on 1500-a.m.
I'll be on KFAN talking Minnesota and Big Ten hoops Dave Sinykin at 5:55 p.m.
When Mike Lukashewich pulled off his Appleton North jersey for the last time, he had no intentions of putting a new one on.
The 6-foot-1 guard was done with his basketball career, he thought. A few offers from Division II and Division III schools weren't enticing enough to battle with something he valued more: his studies.
But after the Wisconsin native got into the University of Minnesota and began his freshman year in a sports management program, his couldn't help but be curious when the Gophers' hosted a walk-on tryout at the beginning of October.
He had been working out on his own all summer -- he was still in great shape. Why not? he thought.
"If it worked out, I said, it worked out," Lukashewich said on Friday. "And if they didn't need me, it was totally OK."
His tryout came and went. The Gophers plucked 5-foot-10 guard Darin Haugh -- who is not eligible this year due to NCAA transfer rules -- and no one else. But as the roster grew thinner -- after Minnesota kicked Zach Lofton off the team, guard Daquein McNeil was arrested for assault and freshman forward Josh Martin transferred -- Lukashewich got a phone call the week before Christmas break.
At the request of coach Richard Pitino, he came in, then, to practice with the team and see the flow of everything. After a couple of practices, the coach had made his decision: he wanted Lukashewich to join the team as its second walk-on.
"I'm excited," said Lukashewich, who used the word "thankful" three times in our short conversation. "I'm thankful for the opportunity and all these guys have helped me a lot. So it's been an easy transition.
"It's been a learning experience for sure. My teammates are helping me out a ton with drills and everything and especially during the game, they help me out with flow stuff, so they've been a tremendous help to me."
Unlike Haugh, Lukashewich was available to help right away. And he did, just over 24 hours after Minnesota announced him along with international big man Gaston Diedhiou -- who will be on scholarship -- as roster additions.
Lukashewich got a minute of action in the first half of a blowout over Seattle on Friday, and almost immediately tipped a three-pointer, causing the Barn to go nuts.
Apparently, that's exactly what the Gophers are expecting from a player with a long arms and one who says he really likes defense.
Pitino had already taken to calling him Hakim Warrick after the former Syracuse player who blocked a potential game-tying three-pointer in the waning seconds of the 2003 National Championship game vs. Kansas.
"He contests shots great," Pitino said. "We were like laughing about it ... and legitimately he got one. He's got long arms. I'm excited about him. I really am."
Lukashewich played a total of four minutes on Friday, getting back in in the second half. He didn't attempt a shot and kept the block as his sole statistic on his first boxscore line.
"I was nervous at first," he said. "But I tried to get the jitters out and play my game. I'm a contributor and I just want to do for the team [whatever they want him to do] and not necessarily shoot the ball."
The two extra players make a big difference in practice, the players said. With all the roster attrition, wing Carlos Morris was left without a substitute in practices that are as fast-paced and intense as games, players say.
"Practice was getting pretty tough," point guard DeAndre Mathieu said. "We try to simulate the game in practice by being uptempo and guys are just getting wore out, so it's definitely going to be good to have some subs."
Now, the Gophers are up to 14 players on the roster -- three of them walk-ons -- although McNeil remains suspended indefinitely. After feeling shorthanded for weeks, Pitino joked that now Minnesota had an overflow.
"It was funny because we didn't have any players and now it's like we've got too many again," he said. "So maybe I'll run somebody off, I don't know."
Three things to know tonight:
1. Furman is ranked 297th on kenpom.com and doesn't have many strengths worth pointing out save a decent ability to get to the line and junior guard Stephen Croone (18.1 points per game). If Minnesota takes care of business, it should be a blowout.
2. Look for Gaston Diedhiou again. The international big man joined the team last Thursday but didn't play Friday because he hadn't practiced at all. Now, he's got at least two practices under his belt, so if the score gets pushed out, Pitino could give him some garbage minutes.
3. Nate Mason earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors today for a stellar 15-point, six-steal performance on Friday that we barely talked about because, well, we're getting used to this kid being so good. He's got a couple more games until the conference season begins to get even better. He's going to be fun to watch this year.
This December, the league honors keep flowing for Minnesota.
On Monday, Nate Mason was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week. In the previous two weeks Andre Hollins and Mo Walker had been named back-to-back Players of the Week.
Mason, who has scored in double digits seven times this season, repeated a pair of career-highs in the Gophers' only game last week -- scoring 15 points and swiping six steals in a win over Seattle.
The steady Georgia native has quietly been phenomenal for the Gophers this season and among the best freshman in the league.
Mason is Minnesota's fourth leading scorer with 9.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per game and is shooting 45.7 percent from three-point range, fifth among all Big Ten players. His 3.1 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks sixth overall in the Big Ten and second among freshmen nationally, sitting on the heels only of Duke's Tyus Jones, a Minnesota native. Mason is also ranked third among freshmen nationally in steals with 2.1 per game. His defensive rebounding percentage lands 417th nationally according to kenpom.com -- impressive for a 6-foot-1 guard to say the least.
Minnesota has only had one other recipient of the Freshman of the Week honor since its instigation in 2010: Joe Coleman, who got the nod on Jan. 16 of 2012.
Fans who arrived early at Williams Arena on Friday perhaps saw international freshman forward Gaston Diedhiou in action for the first time-- displaying a smooth-looking jump shot and dunking in shootaround.
But though the Gophers' advantage against Seattle stretched as great as 37 in the win, Diedhiou wouldn't get off the pine again.
It wasn't a huge surprise given that the newest member of the team hadn't gone through a singe practice yet.
"I'm not real tough but I need a guy to practice first before I'm going to play him," coach Richard Pitino said. "Maybe I'm a stickler. You've got to know one play. Just one."
It's been a long road for Diedhiou, who hails from Senegal but last played in the Canary Islands. The forward passed the NCAA Clearinghouse this summer but was denied by Minnesota's Office of Admissions. During this past semester, Diedhiou has been living on campus and working out on his own while enrolled in English intensive courses.
On Thursday, a second English proficiency test -- the blockade the first time around -- was approved by admissions, allowing Diedhiou to join the team.
The big man -- who has a fierce look on the court, even warming up, but was extremely nice and gracious to the media in the locker room -- said the months in limbo were the toughest part.
"When I was waiting in the middle and I don't know what's going to happen," he said. "I'm working out alone, every day, nobody can be there, I have to push myself. It was very hard."
"I'm here now," he added, "and I'm really excited."
Post game, Pitino didn't want to commit to playing Diedhiou at all this year, but only because he literally has hardly seen the guy play live (he wasn't allowed to practice or work out with the team previously). Assistant coach Dan McHale traveled to watch Diedhiou play in Spain before the Gophers signed him, but Pitino only scouted him off of film. Leading up to today's shootaround, the Gophers put Diedhiou through a 25-minute individual instruction. Still, it's not enough to really know what he has, Pitino said.
"I didn't want to play him [on Friday] because if for whatever reason the guy loses his mind on the basketball court and then you burn a redshirt," Pitino said. "I'm going to approach it as if he's going to help our program. I just don't know. It's so hard."
The coach added that he didn't have many first impressions to give us just yet.
"He looks the part," he said, jokingly. "Made the all-airport team, but no. I've got nothing. Eventually. Patience. I'll give you a full evaluation on Monday."
Pitino did note that Diedhiou hadn't been able to even watch much practice -- allowed by compliance -- because of a class that occurred during the same time frame. He called the freshman "mature," "respectful" and "a closet funny kid."
In talking to Diedhiou after the 92-57 win, it also seemed like his English was pretty strong. He understood every question and spoke confidently with measured responses.
"I think it's pretty good," Pitino said. "It may be better than [Bakary Konate's English], to be honest. Bakary just tries to speak a million words in one minute. I think Gas probably is ahead of him, English-wise. But Bakary has got great understanding, great knowledge on the court which you just never know with guys like that."
The coaching staff is relieved to have Diedhiou, who is expected to be very raw still, aboard, but remains somewhat exasperated with the process.
Over the last few months, coaches, media and fans have watched a highly inexperienced Konate noticeably improve. Come Big Ten, that boost will make a big difference in the center filling a deep role on the bench. Had Diedhiou joined the team in September, as expected, he could be in the same position.
"I'm happy he's been admitted, but he's got a long way to go," Pitino said. "This is an uphill battle for him."
Said Diedhoiu, clearly understanding where he fits in immediately: "I have to work out. I have to get better every day and improve. That's my objective right now."
Three observations from tonight's 92-57 win over Seattle:
The new walk-on is interesting. One day after Minnesota announced that 6-foot-3 Wisconsin native Mike Lukashewich would join the team, the freshman guard dipped his feet in the pool -- getting four minutes, one of those coming in the first half, of the Minnesota win. Almost instantly, Lukashewich blocked a three-point shot. Afterward, the guard, who played high school ball in Appleton, Wisc., said he received a few DII and DIII scholarships but decided to focus on his studies instead. "I'm excited about him," coach Richard Pitino said. "I think he's a valuable addition."
No Gas yet, but still wouldn't be surprised to see him on Monday. International freshman big, Gaston Diedhiou, didn't make it off the bench in the first game he was eligible for on Friday. Then again, Diedhiou hadn't practiced with the team at all, just learning of his status as the team was finishing up yesterday. Pitino said he wanted to ensure that Diedhiou can at least handle himself in some throwaway minutes before he stripped away any redshirt possibility. The coach wouldn't elaborate on his plans for the 6-foot-9 power forward, given that he has yet to fully evaluate him, but he said he's operating as if Diedhiou can help the team this year.
This team is getting better. I legitimately got a little more excited about Big Ten play tonight. This Minnesota squad certainly isn't without its flaws, the lack of rebounding chief among them. But I will say this: I've seen marked improvement since the start of the season in almost every category. The Gophers are moving the ball better. They're taking better shots. Their offense is versatile and their defense is enormously improved from a year ago, at least from what we've seen so far. The pace is great. And individually, guys seem to be getting better. DeAndre Mathieu, a real distributor this season, has been the defensive gnat he set his sights on. Andre Hollins isn't far behind. Carlos Morris is getting better by the day. Even Charles Buggs and Bakary Konate look to be taking steps. Mo Walker is looking more and more like the X factor that could allow this team to leap-frog other middle meddlers in the league. I don't want to gush, but I think I'm gushing.
Anyway, let's start the Big Ten already.
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