College Basketball Nation: Minnesota Golden Gophers

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To be fair, you don't really need an introduction. You met two years ago.

You remember, right? April in Atlanta? It was the final few seconds of the Louisville Cardinals' legendary first half against Michigan -- the first half, you'll recall, that made Spike Albrecht a minor folk hero -- when Montrezl Harrell, up to his eyeballs in adrenaline, flung himself so high and so fast to catch a trailing alley-oop he drew a collective gasp from 70,000 Georgia Dome attendees. Has an arena that big ever been struck as dumb? Probably. The point is that's not the kind of dunk you forget, in a context that makes it downright impossible.

Still, some people have trouble with new faces. That was then. Harrell was an athletic engine as a freshman and a bruiser on the boards, but little else. A year later, he was a more significant piece of another 30-win Louisville team, but one that, like the rest of his teammates, mostly existed in Russ Smith's wackadoodle orbit. Harrell got better at the things he did well -- rebounding, rim finishing -- but he only needed to be so good.

[+] EnlargeMontrezl Harrell
AP Photo/David J. PhillipThe new version of Montrezl Harrell, who dazzled with dunks last March, also drains 3s.
Now Smith is gone. Harrell is back. And if the big question about Louisville's 2014-15 season was "Can Montrezl Harrell make the leap?" -- and it was -- consider Friday night's debut a massive answer in the affirmative.

In other words, say hello to the new Montrezl Harrell.

The big man's effort in Louisville's 81-68 Armed Forces Classic win over Minnesota didn't merely hint at his potential, it revealed it in full. After an offseason spent honing the finer parts of his game, and a fall spent racking up preseason accolades, Harrell's first basket of the season was a sweetly stroked 3-pointer from the left wing. He would hit two more on the night, one more than he made in his first two seasons combined. He would end the game with a career-high 30 points and seven rebounds on 9-of-12 shooting from the field (including 75 percent from 3) and 9-of-10 from the free-throw line. It was about as efficient an offensive performance as a player can have.

Even more impressive? Fifteen of Harrell's 30 points came on jump shots. By contrast, last season just 6.5 percent of Harrell's possessions ended in spot-ups, and just 4.2 percent of his touches resulted in isolations, according to Synergy sports data. There's a reason Louisville coach Rick Pitino didn't put Harrell in those situations often: When he wasn't cutting, grabbing offensive rebounds or posting up, he was inefficient.

In the matter of an offseason, Harrell has gone from a better version of his raw freshman self -- active, aggressive, unrefined -- to something else entirely. He's catching the ball in the high post, pivoting in tune with his cutters and calmly sinking jumpers when the defense sinks. He's lining up 3s with the ease of a guard. He's running interior pick-and-rolls with Louisville's guards at tidy, precise angles.

Speaking of the guards, the results were more mixed. On one end, Terry Rozier was nearly the player of the game in his own right: He had 18 points on 11 shots and a downright Smith-ian six rebounds, four assists and four steals. Backcourt mate Chris Jones, on the other hand, shot just 4-of-13 from the field, and Wayne Blackshear looked uncomfortable (and shot just 1-of-4) throughout.

That's one key question as Louisville moves forward: How much depth does Pitino really have? Jones will play better, but Blackshear, now a senior, has never quite made good on his long-ago high school hype. Despite scorching nights from their two stars, the Cardinals shot just 46 percent overall and turned the ball over on nearly a quarter of their possessions.

Then again, Louisville's defense was good enough to force Minnesota -- a solid but overmatched team coached well by Pitino's son, Richard -- into just .87 points per trip. That's been the real key to the Cardinals' ongoing run of 30-win seasons: long, smart, harrassing defense. That was another question about the Cardinals: Whether they could guard the same way without Smith, who coupled loads of scoring with relentless perimeter pressure. If they can, a balanced scoring diet won't be nearly as important.

In the meantime, there is Harrell. Every season, there is a big man who draws his coaches' raves. He's shooting 3s now! He's got great post moves! Much of the time, this is wishful thinking, and the player goes back to doing what he did before.

Harrell had alley-oops Friday night. Two of them, actually, and both were spectacular. But now Harrell is combining the things that made him intriguing in the first place -- the strength, the motor, the borderline hilarious athleticism -- with the actualized version of his own best-case scenario.

He's dunking and draining 3s. He's doing everything. He is wishful thinking made real. And it's high time we all got reacquainted.

W2W4: The NIT semifinals

April, 1, 2014
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Larry BrownAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesLarry Brown returns to the Garden for the NIT semifinals.
NEW YORK -- Here's what to watch for in Tuesday's semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

Tipoff is at 7 p.m. ET, and you can watch the games on ESPN2.

HOME SWEET HOME: Brooklyn native and former Knicks coach Larry Brown returns to the Garden and should receive a warm welcome.

The 73-year-old Hall of Famer has rejuvenated the Southern Methodist basketball program in just two years at the helm. The Mustangs were 13-19 in 2011-12, prior to Brown's arrival. This season they have won 26 games, the second-most in school history.

SMU was the first team left out of the NCAA tournament field, and received one of four No. 1 seeds in the NIT.

When asked last week about returning to New York, Brown said, “I don’t look at it like that, for me. For me, for our kids to have an opportunity to keep playing is great.

"I’m happy for our team, I’m thrilled for our program. After the disappointment we had [Selection Sunday], this is a privilege to still be playing.”

GAME 1: SMU (26-9, 12-6 AAC) will play No. 3 seed Clemson (23-12, 10-8 ACC) in the first semifinal. The Mustangs finished tied for third in the American Athletic Conference with Final Four participant UConn, and beat the Huskies twice in the regular season. The Tigers, in their fourth year under coach Brad Brownell, finished sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Their best win of the season was a 72-59 triumph over Duke at home on Jan. 11.

Two players average in double figures for SMU -- sophomore point guard Nic Moore (13.5 PPG, 4.9 APG) and sophomore forward Markus Kennedy (12.2 PPG, 7.0 RPG). Clemson has just one double-figure scorer -- junior forward K.J. McDaniels (17.2 PPG, 7.1 RPG). McDaniels was also the leading shot-blocker in the ACC (2.8 BPG).

The Mustangs are 18th in Division I in offensive field goal percentage (48.4), and seventh in defensive field goal percentage (38.2) -- quite a combination! The Tigers aren't nearly as good offensively, ranking 265th (42.4). But they are almost as good defensively, ranking 14th (39.3).

GAME 2: A pair of No. 1 seeds, Minnesota (23-13, 8-10 Big Ten) and Florida State (22-13, 9-9 ACC), will meet in the second semifinal, tipping off at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET. The Golden Gophers, in their first year under coach Richard Pitino (Rick's son), finished seventh in the Big Ten. The Seminoles, in their 12th year under coach Leonard Hamilton, finished tied for seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

These two teams met back on Dec. 3 in Minneapolis, with Minnesota winning 71-61. But the Golden Gophers' leading rebounder, junior center Elliott Eliason (5.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG), is likely out for this game due to an ankle injury, as reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Three players average in double figures for Minnesota -- junior guard Andre Hollins (13.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG), senior guard Austin Hollins (12.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG) and junior guard DeAndre Mathieu (11.8 PPG, 4.1 APG).

Three players average in double figures for Florida State, as well -- sophomore guard Aaron Thomas (14.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG), senior guard Ian Miller (13.7 PPG, 2.9 APG) and senior forward Okaro White (13.5 PPG, 6.6 RPG).

The Seminoles also stack up very well on both sides, ranking 49th in Division I in offensive field goal percentage (46.8) and 25th in defensive field goal percentage (39.9). The Golden Gophers trail significantly in both categories, ranking 142nd offensively (44.8) and 116th defensively (42.5).

Video: Florida State-Minnesota preview

December, 3, 2013
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Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg take a look at the matchup between Florida State and Minnesota in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
This week, ESPN.com is breaking down the nonconference schedules of each team in nine of the nation's top leagues. Next up: the Big Ten.

ILLINOIS

Toughest: at UNLV (Nov. 26), vs. Oregon (Dec. 14 in Portland, Ore.), vs. Missouri (Dec. 21 in St. Louis)
Next toughest: at Georgia Tech (Dec. 3)
The rest: Alabama State (Nov. 8), Jacksonville State (Nov. 10), Valparaiso (Nov. 13), Bradley (Nov. 17), Chicago State (Nov. 22), IPFW (Nov. 29), vs. Auburn (Dec. 8 in Atlanta), Dartmonth (Dec. 10), UIC (Dec. 28 in Chicago)

Toughness scale: 6 -- It's hard to really give the Illini a solid schedule grade, because it's hard to know just how good Illinois' best opponents really are. For example: It is never easy to win in the Thomas & Mack Center, but still-unproven center Khem Birch is the most certain thing about the Rebels' personnel in 2013-14; it looks like Dave Rice's team will be a quality road opponent, but impossible to make a guarantee to this effect. The same goes for Oregon and Missouri, both of whom should be solid at the very least, either of which could completely disappoint if their respective transfers don't pan out. A six feels fair to me, but it's an educated guess.

INDIANA

Toughest: 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 21-22), at Syracuse (Dec. 3), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis)
Next toughest: N/A?
The rest: Chicago State (Nov. 8), LIU Brooklyn (Nov. 12), Samford (Nov. 15), Stony Brook (Nov. 17), Evansville (Nov. 26), North Florida (Dec. 7), Oakland (Dec. 10), Nicholls State (Dec. 20), Kennesaw State (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale: 5 -- Two years since the collapse of its long-standing annual date with Kentucky, the Hoosiers have yet to find a home-and-home or even a neutral-court partnership to replace the strength they lost when the rivalry went awry. As such, Indiana's marquee nonconference games have been reduced to their participation in events: The 2K Sports Classic, where they'll play Washington and then either Boston College or Connecticut; the Crossroads Classic, where they'll play Notre Dame in front of a predominantly crimson crowd in downtown Indianapolis; and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The good news, at least as it pertains to schedule strength, is that this season's ACC/Big Ten draw sends IU to Syracuse, where they'll face a rabid Orange crowd and another very good Jim Boeheim team just months removed from their season-ending loss to the Cuse in March.

IOWA

Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), Notre Dame (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Dec. 13)
The rest: UNC-Wilmington (Nov. 8), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 10), Maryland Eastern Shore (Nov. 14), Abilene Christian (Nov. 17), Penn (Nov. 22), vs. Drake (Dec. 7 in Des Moines, Iowa), Farleigh Dickinson (Dec. 9), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale: 6 -- Last season, the ahead-of-schedule Hawkeyes played some of the best defense in the Big Ten, finished top 20 in the Pomeroy adjusted efficiency rankings and made a deep run in the NIT. They were easily one of the best 60 teams in the country, but their nonconference schedule was so weak it precluded Fran McCaffery's squad from serious tournament consideration even as it played tight games with the best teams in the Big Ten every night. That shouldn't be as much of a problem this season, when Iowa will benefit from participation in the Battle 4 Atlantis (they'll face Xavier in the first round, and either Tennessee or UTEP in the second, maybe Kansas in the final?) and a much better opponent (Notre Dame) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They also get Iowa State -- which lost much of last season's excellent offensive group, but retained rising sophomore Georges Niang and that insane Hilton Coliseum home court -- in a quality true road fixture. This slate still isn't a murderers' row, but it shouldn't hold the Big Ten's most fashionable title sleeper back, either.

MICHIGAN

Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), at Duke (Dec. 3), Arizona (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Nov. 17), vs. Stanford (Dec. 21 in Brooklyn)
The rest: UMass-Lowell (Nov. 8), South Carolina State (Nov. 12), Coppin State (Nov. 29), Houston Baptist (Dec. 7), Holy Cross (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 9 -- The 2012-13 national runners-up, and 2013-14 Big Ten co-favorites, will play a nonconference schedule befitting their newly elevated aspirations. The Puerto Rico Tip-Off, with VCU and Georgetown lurking, ranks among the best tournament events of November. The trip to Duke for the ACC/Big Ten needs little in the way of explanation. (Man, that is going to be a fun game.) The trip to Iowa State is no laughing matter, for reasons outlined in Iowa's blurb; the trip to Brooklyn to face defensive-minded Stanford will be a challenge, too. But the X factor in this schedule comes Dec. 14 when Sean Miller's loaded Arizona group arrives in Ann Arbor for a good old-fashioned campus nonconference tilt. Those kinds of games are rare in our modern, neutral court-dominated landscape, and neither program needed to schedule this one. But I'm happy to speak for most college basketball fans when I say how glad I am that they did.

MICHIGAN STATE

Toughest: vs. Kentucky (Nov. 12 in Chicago), North Carolina (Dec. 4), vs. Georgetown (Feb. 1 in New York City)
Next toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer Classic (Nov. 22-23), at Texas (Dec. 21)
The rest: McNeese State (Nov. 8), Columbia (Nov. 15), Portland (Nov. 18), Mount St. Mary's (Nov. 29), Oakland (Dec. 14), North Florida (Dec. 17), New Orleans (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 8 -- Most of Michigan State's schedule strength is derived from that monster Champions Classic matchup with potential preseason No. 1 Kentucky, John Calipari's most laughably-loaded group of talented freshmen ever -- which, two years removed from the 2012's 38-2 national title run, is saying something. The Dec. 4 home date against North Carolina won't be easy, but if the Tar Heels are without leading scorer and noted rental car enthusiast P.J. Hairston, the Spartans will be obvious favorites in the Breslin Center. Best-case scenario in the Coaches vs. Cancer (a win over Virginia Tech and a matchup with Oklahoma) still isn't much. The real pivot point comes in late December at Texas. For much of the past decade, that has been a brutal road test having less to do with Texas' crowds (sleepy) than with its teams (defensively brutal). If Barnes' team rebounds from last season's struggles and gets back to its usual spot in the top third of the Big 12, Tom Izzo's schedule looks a good sight harder. If not, it really comes down to that Kentucky game -- and what a game it will be. (Update: My first dig into the Spartans' schedule missed their Feb. 1 Super Bowl Sunday game against Georgetown in Madison Square Garden. The Hoyas are a bit of an unknown quantity without Otto Porter, but that's almost guaranteed to be a tough win to come away with, so I bumped them from seven to eight.)

MINNESOTA

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27),
Next toughest: at Richmond (Nov. 16), Florida State (Dec. 3)
The rest: Lehigh (Nov. 8), Montana (Nov. 12), Coastal Carolina (Nov. 19), Wofford (Nov. 21), New Orleans (Dec. 7), South Dakota State (Dec. 10), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 20), Texas A&M Corpus Christi (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 4 -- The Gophers have at least one true standout game on their schedule: Their first-round Maui Invitational matchup with Syracuse, the best the 2013 Maui field has to offer. Which is not to say their trip to Richmond will be easy; indeed, after an injury-plagued 2012-13 season, Chris Mooney's program looks ready to pop back into tourney-bid contention this season. But that's basically it, besides a decent second Maui game with either Arkansas or Cal. Without would-be freshmen Andrew Wiggins (who chose Kansas instead) and Xavier Rathan-Meyes (who chose FSU, but wasn't cleared academically by the NCAA), the Seminoles could be in for another sub-.500 campaign, and from there it's all home cupcakes befitting a transitioning group -- which, under first-year coach Richard Pitino, is exactly what the Gophers are.

NEBRASKA

Toughest: at Creighton (Dec. 8), at Cincinnati (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-22)
The rest: Florida Gulf Coast (Nov. 8), Western Illinois (Nov. 12), South Carolina State (Nov. 17), Northern Illinois (Nov. 30), Miami (Dec. 4), Arkansas State (Dec. 14), The Citadel (Dec. 21)

Toughness scale: 5 -- The signs of second-year coach Tim Miles' tepid forward progress are evident not only in the impending opening of Nebraska's new $300 million arena, or in his signing of impressive New Zealand native Tai Webster (who will immediately be the Cornhuskers' best player when he takes the court against Dunk City in early November), but also in Nebraska's schedule. The Charleston Classic could yield a matchup with New Mexico (not to mention first-round opponent UMass), the Dec. 28 trip to Cincinnati is a perfectly respectable road trip, and Dec. 8's visit to Creighton -- the one program whose success can be said to have played a role in Nebraska's newfound commitment to hoops -- has a chance to put the Cornhuskers on the radar before Big Ten play commences. Miles & Co. are still a year or two away, but there are green shoots all over the place here, and the slightly improved schedule is just one more piece of evidence.

NORTHWESTERN

Toughest: Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29), at NC State (Dec. 4)
Next toughest: at Stanford (Nov. 14)
The rest: Eastern Illinois (Nov. 9), Illinois State (Nov. 17), UIC (Nov. 20), IUPUI (Nov. 22), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 25), Western Michigan (Dec. 7), Mississippi Valley State (Dec. 16), Brown (Dec. 22), DePaul (Dec. 27)

Toughness scale: 6 -- First-year coach Chris Collins is the first person to admit that his rebuilding project will be a multiyear affair. The immediate future will be just as challenging: Collins has to get a group of players recruited to play former coach Bill Carmody's very specific (some would say gimmicky) style to update their entire philosophy toward a modern and more conventional approach. But Collins does have some players at his disposal in Year 1 -- fifth-year medical redshirt Drew Crawford, post-suspension junior JerShon Cobb, promising sophomore center Alex Olah -- set to play a nonconference schedule that helpfully avoids the softness that plagued the Wildcats' nascent tournament hopes in recent seasons. Two true road noncon games at Stanford and NC State complement a solid pair of back-to-back fixtures (Missouri, UCLA) in the Las Vegas Invitational. The point of all this? Northwestern has the schedule to compete for a tournament bid in Year 1. Whether it will have the results to get there -- and make Collins a lionized, conquering hero in 12 months’ time -- will be fascinating to see.

OHIO STATE

Toughest: at Marquette (Nov. 16), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 21 in New York City)
Next toughest: Maryland (Dec. 4)
The rest: Morgan State (Nov. 9), Ohio (Nov. 12), American (Nov. 20), Wyoming (Nov. 25), North Florida (Nov. 29), Central Connecticut State (Dec. 7), Bryant (Dec. 11), North Dakota State (Dec. 14), Delaware (Dec. 18), Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 27)

Toughness scale: 4 -- Save a trip to Duke, the Buckeyes' early schedule in 2012 was so gentle as to make their quality difficult to gauge. It took until February, when Shannon Scott, Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson congealed into a monster on the defensive perimeter, for the Buckeyes took on the look of a national title contender. (And they would have gotten to the Final Four, too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids Wichita State Shockers.) This season's slate is a bit more difficult, but not too much; its main attraction is that early road trip to Marquette, where Buzz Williams has forged an annual Sweet 16 attendee. Even if Dez Wells and the Maryland Terrapins prove better than expected, it's hard to see how they can put enough points on the Buckeyes in Columbus to keep pace. Four seems about right.

PENN STATE

Toughest: at Pittsburgh (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: La Salle (Nov. 19), Barclays Center Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The rest: Wagner (Nov. 9), Bucknell (Nov. 13), Longwood (Nov. 24), Monmouth (Nov. 26), Marshall (Dec. 7), Princeton (Dec. 14), Mount St. Mary's (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale: 4 -- Like Nebraska, Penn State's schedule is improved over recent seasons, and with D.J. Newbill returning and 2011-12's do-everything star Tim Frazier back from a season-ending Achilles tear, the Nittany Lions should improve along with it. It might be unfair to La Salle to keep them off that top line; the Explorers could still be a very dangerous team even without senior guard Ramon Galloway. The Barclays Center Classic offers a game against St. John's and a matchup with either Georgia Tech or Ole Miss, and putting a trip to Pittsburgh on the schedule doesn't only help coach Pat Chambers build his program's brand in a local recruiting zone, it also gives the Nittany Lions a real-deal road game against one of the nation's most consistent (and consistently RPI-friendly) programs.

PURDUE

Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next toughest: Boston College (Dec. 4), vs. Butler (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis), at West Virginia (Dec. 22)
The rest: Northern Kentucky (Nov. 8), Central Connecticut State (Nov. 13), Rider (Nov. 17), Eastern Illinois (Nov. 20), Siena (Nov. 24), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 7), Maryland Eastern Shore (Dec. 17)

Toughness scale: 5 -- The Boilermakers have one of those schedules that doesn't necessarily look great from this vantage point, but stands a reasonable chance of looking tougher and tougher as the season rolls on. How so? For starters, there's at least one really good game here -- the first-round Old Spice matchup with Oklahoma State and star point guard Marcus Smart. But a trip to West Virginia is never easy, and it's hard to imagine Bob Huggins' team repeating last season's monumental struggles. Boston College is a fringe ACC sleeper. And if Butler is better than most expect -- the Boilermakers could play the Bulldogs twice, if the two teams meet at the Old Spice in Orlando -- Matt Painter's team could benefit from a slate that proves better than the sum of its parts.

WISCONSIN

Toughest: Florida (Nov. 12), at Virginia (Dec. 4), Marquette (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 26-27), vs. St. John's (Nov. 8 in Sioux Falls, S.D.)
The rest: at Green Bay (Nov. 16), North Dakota (Nov. 19), Bowling Green (Nov. 21), Oral Roberts (Nov. 23), Milwaukee (Dec. 11), Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 14), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 9 -- The Badgers' schedule is tough enough in the abstract. It's even tougher when you consider how quickly Bo Ryan will throw his team into the fire. The geographically baffling season opener against St. John's in Sioux Falls is one thing, but that game is followed by a visit from Florida just four days later. In late November, the Badgers will be the likely favorite in the two-game Cancun Challenge, but will have to get by both Saint Louis and (probably) West Virginia to come away with two wins. Then it's off to Charlottesville for a revenge game against Virginia, just three days before Marquette comes to the Kohl Center for another edition of Wisconsin's best basketball rivalry. Merely listing these games out doesn't quite do the schedule justice. You need to see the chronology to get the full, brutal picture.

Correction: An earlier version of this post substituted Temple coach Fran Dunphy for Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. It also neglected to list Michigan State's Feb. 1 game vs. Georgetown in Madison Square Garden, which is a pretty awesome game. Eamonn regrets the errors, and is now atoning via self-flagellation.
Two-sport athletes are often forced to choose at some point in their collegiate careers.

In college basketball, football is usually the other sport that’s the object of players’ dilemmas.

Minnesota’s Wally Ellenson might face that predicament in the future, as the sophomore is a standout in track and field.

The NCAA All-American high jumper cleared the 7-1 mark to win the gold medal at the Pan American Junior Championships in Medellin, Colombia earlier this week.

From GopherSports.com:
In his first international track and field competition, Minnesota sophomore Wally Ellenson captured gold on Sunday in the high jump at the 2013 Pan American Junior Championships in Medellin, Colombia.

The Rice Lake, Wis., All-American cleared 2.16 meters (7-1 ft.) on his first attempt of the day and never looked back as torrential downpours rained down on Alfonso Galvis Duque Stadium.

"It's surreal," Ellenson said. "(Winning a gold medal) was the goal throughout the whole competition, and I'm just thankful I was able to do it."

Ellenson contributed one of 16 gold medals for the U.S. team, which led all competing nations with a total of 39 medals at the 17th Pan American Junior Championships.

Ellenson, who averaged 2.0 PPG with the Gophers last season, wants to compete in the 2016 Olympics. And this achievement in Colombia certainly legitimizes the 6-4 guard’s goal.

In May, however, Ellenson told the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.), that his competitors were more technically sound than he was following the 2012-13 season. Plus, he’s more comfortable off the court.
"They are two completely different sports, but I'm more confident in this one," said Ellenson, a freshman from Rice Lake, Wis.

The balance between basketball and track didn’t stop Ellenson from reaching the NCAA track and field championships (finished in a tie for eighth). But Richard Pitino’s young wing might focus his energies on one sport in the future, especially if the move is necessary to boost his chances of reaching the 2016 Olympics.
Transfers seem straightforward. A player leaves one school and attends another, and has to sit out one year before he can play for his new team. Simple, right? Wrong: Even that seemingly structured rule is beset by a score of academic timeline requirements and bureaucratic processes.

A player must receive a written permission-to-contact letter from his current coach. He must have spent a full year in "academic residence" -- i.e., attending classes as a full-time, 12-credit-hours-or-insert-your-school's-equivalency student -- before he is eligible to get back on the court at his new school. There are "4-4" transfers and "2-4" transfers and different rules therein; there are issues involving full, partial, or non-qualifying academic status; and there are waivers and appeals you can make based on specific circumstances that can change the preexisting requirements, just like that.

How dizzying is this stuff? Here's the NCAA's brochure [PDF] for student-athletes interested in learning more about the transfer process. Ostensibly, this document was created to make the rules easy to understand and apply. It is filled with handy little case studies; it even has a glossary of important terms. And if you can read past the third page without help from prescription ADHD medication, well, I'd love to shake your hand. This stuff is brutal.

Which brings us to today's latest transfer news, reported by ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman:

Former Louisville forward Rakeem Buckles, who sat out last season at Florida International, will not be allowed to follow Richard Pitino to Minnesota, multiple sources told ESPN.

Buckles spent three seasons at Louisville and suffered two major knee injuries. He left the Cardinals and sat out last season at FIU, but decided to transfer to Minnesota and apply for a waiver to play immediately because Florida International was hit with a postseason ban by the NCAA for academic issues dating to the Isiah Thomas regime.


As Jeff writes, the surprise here stems from the fact that a player wouldn't be allowed to transfer away from a school that is currently not barred from the NCAA tournament for Academic Progress Rate violations. We've seen a handful of recent players in similar situations move to new schools and be eligible right away (see: Huskies, UConn). One of them is already working out in Minneapolis: Current Gophers guard Malik Smith, also formerly of FIU, transferred to Minnesota and was granted a waiver by the NCAA this summer. He'll play this season, but Buckles won't. Huh?

That's hardly the only confusing recent transfer news. Last week, Kerwin Okoro, a player transferring from Iowa State to Rutgers, was denied a hardship waiver by the NCAA. Okoro appealed to play immediately, as many players in recent seasons have, under the medical or family hardship "legislative relief" exemption (see what I mean?) after losing his New York City-based father and brother in the matter of two months last winter. But Okoro's appeal was denied, which raised red flags out in Rutgers, where the Star-Ledger has tried to divine why so many former Scarlet Knights were granted post-Mike Rice appeals this spring while Okoro, who is entering the program recovering from family tragedy, was not. The key quote from an NCAA spokesman:

"It’s not a formula. It’s not a math problem," NCAA spokesman Christopher Radford said. "The guidelines evolve and we see different circumstances and scenarios, and the guidelines evolve with that to make the process better and more efficient."


This comes amid the Star-Ledger's attempt to explain the transfer hardship/relief/whatever appeals process, and the various NCAA subcommittees each case passes through on each various appeal attempt. It all ends at the desk of the Legislative Council Subcommittee, which "may not even be burdened by the guidelines it has set for the NCAA staff."

"The subcommittee essentially can make whatever decision they think is the appropriate decision as a representative of the membership," Brooks said.


It would seem that Okoro is a textbook case, a player who left New York to play in the Midwest but felt compelled to return when his family suffered not one but two deaths in a brutally short period of time. We've seen plenty of relief appeals granted for far less in recent seasons, and while that may still happen in Okoro's case, it begs the question: What is the difference here? Where are the guidelines? How big is the box? Is it even a box in the first place?

The same goes for Buckles. This is not his first transfer, which changes things, because the NCAA has been concern-trolling about the purportedly destructive nature of player nomadism for years now. By attempting to transfer a second time after just one year at his previous school, Buckles faces a higher burden of academic proof. But even so, the circumstances of the case seem like a no-brainer: A player is leaving a school that is banned from the NCAA tournament and that now no longer even has a scholarship available for him to return to play one last year for his former coach at that coach's new school. And not only was his hope to play right away at Minnesota dashed, he was told he couldn't transfer at all. Maybe that aligns with the NCAA's rules on academic status for transfers. It's hard to know, because the player's privacy is worth protecting. But even if we're talking rules and not "guidelines" … why? Because that would be bad for Buckles? Even though he clearly disagrees? I know, I know, the NCAA is our last societal bastion of early-20th century class patriarchy. But really?

Simplify the transfer rules. Simplify the appeals guidelines. Simplify the rules. This was among NCAA president Mark Emmert's primary goals when he took on the job of representing the NCAA membership, and he has managed to streamline other areas of the rulebook. There are now more straightforward (and strict) punishments for violations, less confusion about texting recruits, no penalties for eating cream cheese, etc. etc. But the transfer rules remain.

There is some movement on this front: Last November, the Division I Legislative Council’s Subcommittee for Legislative Relief (no joke, that's what it's actually called)* changed the guidelines for hardship waiver requests in an effort to make application thereof more consistent. Clearly, that hasn't worked out too well, but it's something -- and indicative of a larger effort to make transfers less of a thorny mess.

In a perfect world, players would have as much personal agency as the men paid handsomely for marshaling their talents. In a perfect world, the NCAA wouldn't need to create 20-page pamphlets to educate students on transfer rules, because those rules would be so simple as to be intuitive. In a perfect world, the NCAA wouldn't feel the need to tell 22-year-old men and women it knows what's better for their academic futures than they do.

We do not live in a perfect world, unfortunately, and some of the above will never happen, at least not as long as the NCAA is still kicking. But the current system is at best poorly misunderstood and at worst irreconcilably broken. Either way, it's time to start over.

*Oh, and while we're at it, can you guys stop naming things the Division I Legislative Council’s Subcommittee for Legislative Relief? Call it the Appeals Group. Rebrand. Football Group. Basketball Group. Rules Group. Investigations Group. Enforcement Group. Whatever.

Rebrand, guys. Communicate simply, clearly, declaratively. It really doesn't have to be this hard.

Times/networks for Big Ten/ACC Challenge

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
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The times and networks have been finalized for the 15th annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge, which will take place Dec. 3-4 on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU.

All 12 Big Ten teams and 12 of the 15 ACC schools will participate in the 2013 Challenge, including the three newest ACC members (Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse). Clemson, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest will not play in this year's event.

The ACC and Big Ten split last year’s Challenge with six wins each. In the event of a tie, the Commissioner’s Cup remains with the conference that won the previous year, which was the Big Ten in 2011. The ACC holds a 10-3-1 Challenge record, winning the first 10 events (1999-2008) before the Big Ten won the next three (2009-2011).

For an analysis of this year's matchups, check out Eamonn Brennan's take from back in May. As for the times and networks, here they are ...

Tuesday, Dec. 3 (all times ET)
7:15 - Indiana at Syracuse (ESPN)
7:15 - Illinois at Georgia Tech (ESPN2)
7:30 - Penn State at Pittsburgh (ESPNU)
9:15 - Michigan at Duke (ESPN)
9:15 - Notre Dame at Iowa (ESPN2)
9:30 - Florida State at Minnesota (ESPNU)

Wednesday, Dec. 4 (all times ET)
7:00 - Maryland at Ohio State (ESPN or ESPN2)
7:00 - Wisconsin at Virginia (ESPN or ESPN2)
7:30 - Northwestern at NC State (ESPNU)
9:00 - North Carolina at Michigan State (ESPN)
9:00 - Boston College at Purdue (ESPN2)
9:30 - Miami at Nebraska (ESPNU)

A few notes on this year's matchups:
  • Seven of the 12 games will mark first-time Challenge matchups: Michigan-Duke, Maryland-Ohio State, Miami-Nebraska and Boston College-Purdue, plus the debut of the three new ACC members Syracuse (vs. Indiana), Notre Dame (at Iowa) and Pitt (vs. Penn State).
  • In addition to first-time Challenge games, several of the teams are infrequent opponents: Nebraska holds a 3-1 record against Miami; Purdue won both previous meetings against BC; Ohio State and Maryland last played in 1985 with OSU three out of the five all-time games; and Notre Dame will play Iowa for the first time since 1990 and holds a 8-5 series record.
  • Old Pennsylvania rivals Pitt and Penn State will meet for the first time since 2005. The Panthers have won the past five contests.
  • Illinois/Georgia Tech and Wisconsin/Virginia will follow their first-time Challenge meetings in 2012 with a rematch in the 2013 event. The Illini and Cavaliers won last year's matchups.
  • Best Three Out of Five: North Carolina/Michigan State and Minnesota/Florida State will meet in the Challenge for the fifth time. Both series are 2-2.
  • Rubber Match: Northwestern and NC State will square off in the Challenge for the third time. Northwestern won in 2009 and NC State in 2002.
  • Syracuse and Indiana have met five previous times in non-Challenge games, with the Orange winning the past four, including last season’s Sweet 16 matchup.
Minnesota center Mo Walker's chuckle exudes pain.

It’s his natural response to questions about the foods he’s ditched to achieve a 50-pound weight loss since the end of the Gophers’ season.

The Lasagna? Gone.

The vanilla ice cream and milkshakes? No more.

The pizza? Well ….

“I’ll have a slice of pizza every now and then,” said Walker, who weighs 260 pounds now after playing at 310 pounds throughout last season. “But it’s usually in the middle of the week when I know I have a few workouts coming up and I can burn off the calories I just ate.”

Walker isn’t perfect but his new body is a testament to his offseason commitment and response to Richard Pitino’s plea.

The new Minnesota coach recently tweeted stunning before and after images of the junior:



Walker credits extra weightlifting sessions, training and a revamped diet.

“I’m going to be able to contribute a lot more,” he said. “I’m going to be able to play more minutes. I’m going to be able to give a lot more effort out there on the court.”

Shortly after Pitino arrived in early April, he told the center that he had to lose weight to play in his system, which emphasizes full court pressure and quick buckets in transition.

With Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams gone, Pitino knew he needed more size. But he also recognized that his small recruiting window would probably result in a roster with limited interior depth. The Gophers only have two true big men, Elliott Eliason and Walker.

And Walker, Pitino believed, couldn’t thrive in his fast-paced style. Not at that size.

“A lot of people were saying ‘He can’t play in your system at that weight,’” Pitino said. “Well, he can’t play in anyone’s system at that weight. He was just too heavy.”

That’s no longer the case.

Walker has lost nearly 100 pounds throughout his career. And now he’s a more mobile and usable forward for a program that needs size more than anything.

He’s certain he can keep the weight off, too.

“A lot of people fall off and cheat every now and then, but I’ve been pretty good with my dieting and watching my carbs and my calories and just working out,” he said.

But weight has been a perennial challenge for Walker.

An ESPN.com scouting report described him as a “mountain disguised as a man” when he was a 270-pound high school senior in 2010.

By the time he reached Minnesota’s campus, he’d hit 326 pounds. He peaked at 346 before a knee injury ended his freshman season, but Walker actually lost weight following surgery.

Then, he went back to Toronto for the summer and it all returned.

“That home cooking,” he said.

Walker decided to stay in Minneapolis this offseason and work with the team’s strength coach on his diet and workouts.

It’s not easy to stay fit on any college campus, where young men usually subscribe to an “eat everything in sight” philosophy.

When Walker’s teammates make fast food runs, he usually stays home. When he joins them, he tries to make healthy choices.

“If I were to go to [a Mexican restaurant], I’d just have to order salad instead of a burrito,” he said. “It’s just picking my spots.”

But that’s only the first phase of the change.

Pitino is excited about the weight loss, but he wants the weight loss to be accompanied by a better player, a stronger player.

That’s the next step, he said.

“I told him just because you lost weight does not mean you’re a great player,” Pitino said.

He is more confident, though. And that’s a good start.

Yet it’s difficult to project a level of growth for a player who averaged just 6.6 minutes per game last year.

The weight, however, will no longer be an obstacle. And he’s proven that he can avoid the temptation that has thrown off his progress in the past.

It’s not exactly a piece of cake for him, though.

“Vanilla ice cream is my favorite thing, milkshakes,” he said. “I love the milkshakes. Pizza is just pizza. I don’t really like it that much. But ice cream’s probably the main [challenge].”

Count 'Em Down: Tumbling Teams

July, 25, 2013
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The following teams could tumble in 2013-14. Just so we’re clear: That potential “tumble” is based on last season’s position for every team listed. It doesn’t mean these squads will finish at the bottom of the standings, but I think they’ll fall in comparison to their respective peaks from last season.

Top 10 teams that will tumble in 2013-14:

10. Gonzaga: For the first time in school history, the Zags recorded a No. 1 ranking and a top seed in the Big Dance. Their early tournament exit ended their season on a sour note, but the program reached new heights in 2012-13. Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk comprised one of the toughest frontcourts in America. Harris (14.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG) was a rugged forward who had finesse and power. Olynyk (17.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG) was the best combo forward in America. He had an underrated post game too. The duo created matchup problems for every team they faced last season. And now both players are gone. Kevin Pangos and multiple members of a respectable backcourt are back, but that Olynyk-Harris combo was special. There’s still enough talent in Spokane to win the WCC and reach the NCAA tournament, but the Zags won’t be the national title contenders they appeared to be through the 2012-13 campaign.

9. Cincinnati: Coach Mick Cronin had one of the nation’s top backcourts last season. Now, two members of a trio that anchored his 22-win NCAA tournament team -- JaQuon Parker and Cashmere Wright -- are gone. Sean Kilpatrick, the team’s leading scorer, returns. But a Cincinnati squad that struggled with consistent scoring benefited from Parker’s and Wright’s ability to stretch the floor. Both shot better than 36 percent from behind the 3-point line. Kilpatrick could be a one-man show in 2013-14, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The toughest void for the Bearcats (14th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) could be the defensive deficit created by the departure of Cheikh Mbodj (2.6 BPG). There are holes everywhere for this Bearcats squad.

8. Detroit: Ray McCallum Jr. turned down offers from powerhouse programs to play for his father, Ray McCallum Sr. With McCallum at point guard, Detroit reached the NCAA tournament in 2012 after the Titans won the Horizon League tournament. But he’s gone now. And he’s not the only key player that Detroit will miss. The Titans have lost their top four scorers from last season. Somehow, Detroit must find respectable offensive contributors who can make up for the loss of McCallum (18.7 PPG), Nick Minnerath (14.6 PPG), Jason Calliste (14.4 PPG) and Doug Anderson (12.1 PPG). McCallum could face his toughest season as a head coach in 2013-14.

7. San Diego State: It’s fair to say that San Diego State underachieved last season. The Aztecs finished in a tie for fourth in the stacked Mountain West Conference. Then they were stopped in the third round of the Big Dance by Florida Gulf Coast. Not a shameful showing, but their potential suggested that they had a higher ceiling. Well, that ceiling is lower now with the loss of four of the team’s top six scorers from last season. Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley were two of the Aztecs’ top defenders too. Franklin wasn’t the game’s most efficient player (3.4 TPG, 28 percent from the 3-point line), but he was the guy with the ball in his hands when the Aztecs needed a big play. Whom will they turn to next year? Steve Fisher seems to have more questions than answers right now.

6. Butler: Rotnei Clarke (16.9 PPG) and Andrew Smith (11.3 PPG) have moved on. That’s a challenge for the program because they formed a potent inside-outside combo. But Roosevelt Jones, Khyle Marshall and Kellen Dunham remain. So Butler can find buckets in 2013-14. The Bulldogs are on this list, however, because Brad Stevens will not be on the sideline next season. Brandon Miller has a strong pedigree. I don’t doubt his coaching acumen. But Stevens is making millions in the NBA because he has the rare ability to extract every ounce of talent from his players. At Butler, they were devoted to him and his system. That combination of buy-in and strategy led to amazing highs in recent years. Even though Miller is in the Butler family, this is still a transition. And it’s a transition without the mastermind who made Butler a household name. The Bulldogs may fall before they establish their footing under Miller.

5. Georgetown: First, Otto Porter turned pro. Then Greg Whittington tore an ACL, jeopardizing his status for next season. Yes, three starters from last season's squad return, and former UCLA standout Josh Smith will join the team at midseason. And that helps. Markel Starks' presence is a major boost for the program too. But who will create offensive opportunities for a team that registered just 64.6 PPG (247th nationally) with a lottery pick running the show? That number doesn’t tell the full story of Georgetown basketball in 2012-13. The Hoyas were fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. But Porter’s versatility eased the defensive responsibilities of his teammates. With a healthy Whittington, however, the latter will be a minimal concern for John Thompson III’s program. But there’s no guarantee that Whittington will be ready in time to help Georgetown in 2013-14. And that’s a problem.

4. Indiana: Yogi Ferrell is back. That’s the good news for Tom Crean. The bad news? Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo are in the NBA. Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls are gone too. Although Indiana entered last season as a preseason pick by many to win the national title, similar hype will not follow the Hoosiers into the 2013-14 season. They have three top-100 kids, including five-star recruit Noah Vonleh, in their incoming class. And multiple players who contributed in spurts last season will earn more minutes. So there’s enough talent in Bloomington to register another NCAA tournament bid. But the Hoosiers were the No. 1 team in America in multiple stretches last season. I can’t imagine the young program rivaling that effort next season.

3. Temple: Remember when Khalif Wyatt dropped 31 points in Temple’s win over NC State in the NCAA tournament? Remember when he did it again versus Indiana two days later? Wyatt’s offensive explosiveness helped Temple beat teams that were more talented than the Owls last season. He scored 33 points in his team’s win over Syracuse in December. He recorded 30 points when the Owls defeated VCU in early March. Now, Wyatt and sidekick Scootie Randall have left the stage. That’s a combined average of 31.8 PPG, 2.7 SPG and 6.1 APG.

2. Minnesota: Can a team that went 8-10 in the Big Ten tumble? Yep, especially if that team is implementing a new system with a limited talent pool. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins could be all-Big Ten performers next season, but the void created when Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams exhausted their eligibility will be a challenge for new coach Richard Pitino. Plus, Joe Coleman transferred from a team that reached the Big Dance and beat UCLA in the second round. Pitino’s fast-paced, pressure system could work in the Big Ten, but he needs the right pieces to make that happen. He just doesn’t appear to have them yet.

1. Miami: Last season, Miami had it all. The hoopla that followed the surging Hurricanes included courtside appearances by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. It was a great ride for the program. But a new reality will soon take hold as Miami coach Jim Larranaga attempts to replace Shane Larkin, Julian Gamble, Kenny Kadji, Reggie Johnson, Trey McKinney Jones and Durand Scott. Those veterans were responsible for one of the ACC’s and the nation’s top defensive attacks (28th in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com). His rebuilding effort will commence in a league that will add Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame next season. Hard times ahead for the Hurricanes.
1. Tyus Jones was consistent in his plan of going to school with friend and fellow top-3 ESPN 100 player Jahlil Okafor when I talked to him after our ESPNU coverage of an AAU event Wednesday night at the HP Fieldhouse at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The 6-1 Jones (ranked No. 3) is from Apple Valley High in Minnesota and has a list of Duke, Baylor, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State. Okafor, a 6-10 center from Whitney Young High in Chicago who is rated No. 1 on the ESPN list, has a list of Arizona, Duke, Michigan State, Ohio State, Kansas, Kentucky, Baylor and Illinois. If this happens where both go to the same school it shouldn't be a total shock. This is a new era where the turnover is high at schools, allowing for multiple spots to be open for high-profile players. Kentucky has been able to pull off players who know each other coming together because it has produced multiple early-entrants. And the era of a school not having a scholarship available are over, too. If both of these players wanted to go to a school then that school would make sure there were two spots. Still, for two players, from two different states, to lock in and coordinate recruiting to go together would be quite a coup for the players and the school that can pull this off.

2. UCLA coach Steve Alford is one of many coaches fatigued and irritated by the July recruiting calendar. The three four-plus days on the road and the location of the tournaments have caused coaches -- and players, as well as their families -- to traverse the country multiple times, especially for those located on the West Coast. Alford's schedule in Week 1 was Indianapolis, North Augusta, S.C., and then Los Angeles. His second weekend was back to the East Coast to Washington D.C., then Milwaukee, Dallas and back to Los Angeles. He started this week in Orlando on Wednesday and will end in Las Vegas and then Los Angeles. Alford said he'd like to see two seven-day periods with one break in the middle. He is not alone.

3. Minnesota got FIU's Malik Smith to transfer and play for Richard Pitino. Smith was cleared to play immediately. But the case of FIU's Rakeem Buckles isn't as simple. Buckles is headed to Minnesota and with the FIU APR ban he shouldn't have an issue playing immediately. Buckles still has to get eligible. He's currently finishing classes at FIU and can't get a waiver to play immediately until he leaves FIU in good academic standing. Pitino needs as many experienced bodies as possible. Buckles transferred to FIU from Louisville where Richard Pitino was an assistant to his father, Rick.

3-point shot: Read your contracts

July, 18, 2013
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1. The fallout from Kent State winning a $1.2 million settlement from former coach Geno Ford for leaving for Bradley may make coaches re-read their contracts very carefully. According to one prominent coaching agent, "coaches will be forced to structure their contracts a certain way. Buyout language is absolutely huge. A lot of times coaches don't realize it until they are put in a position of getting terminated or leaving for another job. Most times contracts are finalized so quickly these days. These coaches must pay attention to details." We've seen this before in coaches leaving from West Virginia to Michigan in men's basketball and football and a number of others. But many times these are negotiated settlements, rarely a court case awarding the school. The Kent State case should cause coaches to pause and ensure their contracts are favorable in case they bolt early.

2. We released 11 tournaments that are on our family of networks on ESPN.com Tuesday and Wednesday. There were a lot of twitter inquiries about when the Battle 4 Atlantis will be unveiled. Well, according to those organizers, the field should be announced later this month. Kansas and Andrew Wiggins headline the event in the Bahamas with Villanova, Iowa, USC, Xavier, Tennessee, UTEP and Wake Forest. The Battle 4 Atlantis has been on the NBC Sports Network in the past. The one other tournament that should be mentioned on ESPN is the NIT Season Tip-Off, which is run by the NCAA. Duke and Arizona are on opposite sides of the bracket with Rutgers and Alabama as the other two hosts. The NIT Season Tip-Off is the one tournament where teams still have to earn their way to the neutral site.

3. More waivers were granted Wednesday for players to compete immediately. Malik Smith got the word he can compete for his former coach at FIU, Richard Pitino, who will be his new coach at Minnesota. Ryan Harrow, who wanted to be closer to home where he is dealing with family issues, won his waiver to play immediately at Georgia State after playing last season at Kentucky. Meanwhile, Marshall's DeAndre Kane got his graduate degree as expected and will play the upcoming season at Iowa State. Transferring is no longer an epidemic, it is reality, and it seems like more transfers are playing immediately instead of sitting out a year.
Weight has been a challenge for Minnesota center Maurice Walker throughout his career.

The 6-foot-10 big man weighed 340 pounds when he reached the Minneapolis campus in 2010. But he was a fluid post presence despite his size. He had some unique tools for a freshman center.

But the weight was clearly an issue. Still, he became a semi-reliable contributor for Tubby Smith’s squad as the pounds began to fall off his frame midway through his debut season.

Everything changed when he tore his posterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in a December nonconference matchup against South Dakota State. Walker missed the rest of that season and all of 2011-12 as he recovered.

That’s when the weight came back. Walker averaged just 6.6 minutes per game in 2012-13.

Once Richard Pitino was hired as coach in April, Walker’s role in a system that thrives on speed and stamina was questioned due to the new coach’s emphasis on creating offense through full court pressure.

[+] EnlargeMaurice Walker
AP Photo/Jim MoneMinnesota center Maurice Walker, seen here in March, has reportedly lost 40 pounds this offseason.
Walker, however, viewed the change as a challenge.

Per Star Tribune columnist Chip Scoggins, the Canadian center has already lost more than 40 pounds in the offseason:
Not long after the Gophers introduced Richard Pitino as their new men’s basketball coach, rumors began to circulate that an unnamed player intended to seek his scholarship release and transfer to another program.

My gut reaction was, “Wonder where Maurice Walker will end up?”

It didn’t require much deductive reasoning to determine that Big Mo appeared ill-fitted for Pitino’s breakneck brand of basketball. At 310 pounds, Walker looked out of shape manning the low post in Tubby Smith’s plodding offense. How in the world would he ever survive in Pitino’s run-and-gun system? That’s like asking a pontoon to keep pace with speed boats. A change in scenery seemed inevitable.

In a touch of irony, the player who transferred -- Joe Coleman -- might have been the team’s best athlete. As for Walker, he decided to stick it out and make some life changes.

“Once I heard Pitino, I was really excited,” he said.

And then they met for the first time. Pitino has made Walker’s weight a standard quip in his public speeches, and he didn’t mince words in offering a blunt critique of his 6-10 junior center.

“[He said] it’s going to take a lot of work to get into shape and that I’m a long ways from where I need to be,” Walker said.

He’s still not there yet, but Walker has lost nearly 40 pounds through diet and fitness training. Noticeably slimmer, he hopes to lose an additional 15 to 20 pounds and enter next season around 255.

As someone who showed up on campus as a freshman weighing 340 pounds, Walker believes his career will follow a different arc with these changes to his body.

“Looking back at it now, I should have done this a long time ago,” he said.

A coaching change provided the necessary push, but Walker’s new outlook likely stems from a recognition that he was wasting an opportunity. He was either injured or too overweight to be considered anything but an intriguing unknown his first three years, including a redshirt season. His size became nothing more than a tease because he lacked the quickness and stamina to maintain anything.

Pitino needs Walker, and anyone else he can find, to boost his interior depth.

Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams are gone.

Elliott Eliason is the only player on Minnesota's roster who is 6-10 or taller.

It appears, however, that Walker recognizes the contribution he could make on this season's squad. He has lost 70 pounds since 2010. And he’s determined to lose even more so he can help a Gophers team missing multiple pieces.
Two-sport athletes are common in collegiate sports.

In high school, young men and women often compete in multiple events. Some who are committed and exceptional in two sports will attempt to participate in both at the Division I level.

Julius Peppers played football and basketball for North Carolina. Andrew Luck played baseball and football at Stanford. Football great Jim Brown was an All-American in lacrosse at Syracuse.

Today’s athletic schedules, however, make life difficult for two-sport athletes. College sports are year-round with practices, training and games. There’s really no offseason anymore. So coaches can be, understandably, leery of allowing their athletes to play another sport.

Richard Pitino wasn’t thrilled, it seems, when Minnesota wing Wally Ellenson -- an elite high jumper -- told him that he’d planned to compete in track and field this spring following his freshman season with the team. But Ellenson joined former coach Tubby Smith’s last recruiting class with the understanding that he’d be allowed to compete in both.

New staff, new conversation.

From Patrick Reusse in the Star Tribune:
Pitino's meeting with freshman Wally Ellenson included this information: Ellenson was competing as a high jumper on the track and field team.

“He didn’t understand at first,” Ellenson said. “He’s OK now. We’re going to talk after the season.”

Ellenson was a high-level basketball recruit out of Rice Lake, Wis. He said one reason for choosing Minnesota was an agreement that he could participate in two sports. The basketball coach signing off on that, Orlando “Tubby” Smith, is now working in Lubbock, Texas.

The two-sport schedule did put Ellenson through three hectic weeks at the end of April and into May. The daily schedule included classes in the morning, track practice, weight training and team workouts with basketball, and tutoring/study sessions.

“You’re tempted to sleep in in the morning, but you can’t do it,’’ he said.

Ellenson said “basketball is definitely my first love,” but he’s also motivated by the individual challenge of track and field.

“It’s just you,” he said. “In high jumping, you either get over the bar or you don’t. There’s nobody else to take the credit or the blame.”

Ellenson’s first event of the season was the Hamline Invitational on April 6. He cleared 7 feet, 1 inches, a half-inch better than his top mark as a Rice Lake senior.

“They didn’t have a jersey for me, so they didn’t count it officially,’’ Ellenson said. “But it was a meet, and I competed, and I cleared the height, so 7 feet, 1 is my career best.”

Just so we’re clear.

Ellenson isn’t some Average Joe on the track and field team.

He’s an elite high jumper who officially cleared 6 feet, 11 inches to take third in the Big Ten track and field championships. The winning jump at the London Olympics was 7 feet, 8 inches.

Based on his career high, Ellenson could leap over Patrick Ewing or Shaq.

On Thursday, he’ll participate in the NCAA Division I track and field championship preliminary rounds. As much as loves both sports, however, most athletes are forced to choose at some point in their careers. The strain he describes will only increase over time.

Ellenson didn’t play much last year. But Pitino wants to run the floor and press next season. To accomplish that task, he’ll need talented athletes. So Ellenson could log more minutes in that system, especially with Joe Coleman transferring.

At the very least, Pitino should design a few alley-oop plays for Ellenson.

He can probably kiss the rim.
1. New American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco relished the moment Monday night as one of his teams -- for this season and, yes, for next -- won a national title. He was guaranteed of another heading into the women's final Tuesday night, which featured American-bound current Big East teams Louisville and Connecticut. It is true that Louisville is heading to the ACC in the fall of 2014. But that won't keep the league from celebrating the titles this fall. The old Big East guard is trying to brand the new league as the American rather than as the AAC. Aresco doesn't want the acronym used if possible.

2. Memphis coach Josh Pastner said he gave Tarik Black a Tuesday deadline to decide if he wanted to stay with the Tigers. He did not, even though he was graduating. "I want guys to be here with enthusiasm to be here,'' said Pastner. Black will transfer and try to play immediately next season. The Tigers also lost Adonis Thomas, who is declaring for the NBA draft. But the American-bound Tigers have one of the top recruiting classes in the country. "(Black) is a good guy and I wish him the very best. He graduated," Pastner said. "But we'll be fine. We're still really talented. We've got the main corps and we've got the No. 2 recruiting class.''

3. I had new Minnesota coach Richard Pitino on "Katz Korner" on Tuesday and I was struck by his confidence. Pitino is just like his father in that regard. Pitino had no hesitation in taking the Minnesota job once offered. Now, one would assume that no one coaching at Florida International would turn that down. But Pitino definitely has the confidence that he will win. Pitino's hire was overshadowed by the events of last week; now he's got to get into the grind of the new job. He was on the Georgia Dome floor Monday night after the NCAA title game, spent the post-game hours with his dad -- Rick, head coach of the champion Louisville Cardinals -- and said they didn't get to bed until 5 a.m. before Richard was up at 7 a.m. Richard Pitino now must spend his time wisely, re-recruiting the local players and trying to make inroads with a stellar underclassman crew in the state of Minnesota.
1. The NCAA's random date of April 16 to declare for the NBA draft isn't pressuring a number of players into making quick decisions. Coaches are now savvy to the date as being meaningless. That's why Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk may wait to decide until the NBA's own early-entry deadline of April 28. Olynyk is probably going to be the same player in the NBA whether he declares next season or this. He is a Wooden All-America and, if he were to return, would be one of the contenders for player of the year. Missouri's Phil Pressey is also weighing a similar decision over the next few weeks. A number of players haven't outlined their intentions but have plenty of time, like Miami's Shane Larkin, Kansas' Ben McLemore, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, Georgetown's Otto Porter, Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas, Syracuse's C.J. Fair and Michael Carter-Williams, Louisville's Russ Smith as well as Indiana's Cody Zeller. Cal's Allen Crabbe joined the list of draftees earlier Wednesday. I fully expect Indiana's Victor Oladipo, Louisville's Gorgui Dieng, UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad and Michigan's Trey Burke to declare soon. No official word out of Connecticut, but the staff is anticipating -- at this point -- that guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright will return (smart move if it happens, since they don't have an NBA home to go to next season).

2. The Big Ten suddenly got incredibly younger with this week's two coaching hires -- Northwestern announcing Chris Collins and Minnesota tabbing Richard Pitino. The under-40 club will give the league a new look. The two take over programs that are striving for consistency, but both desperately need an upgrade in facilities to hang with the big boys. Collins and Pitino will need to use their youthful enthusiasm to build momentum since the dollars aren't in place for facilities they were used to -- Collins was at Duke and Pitino at Louisville and Florida before his stop at Florida International. Northwestern had been looking at Collins for quite some time. But Pitino was clearly a new name for Minnesota in the past week as athletic director Norwood Teague looked for an off-the-grid-type hire like he made at Virginia Commonwealth. Pitino got off to an impressive start in his coaching career at FIU with the upset of Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt tournament and a chance to earn the league's automatic NCAA tournament berth. Now he'll face his toughest challenge of his career. He has a brand name in basketball, which carries weight, but will need to put together a strong staff to quickly earn the trust of his players this spring and summer. This can work at both places. Memphis, for example, has been a soaring success under Josh Pastner. Pastner led the Tigers to conference titles and NCAA tournament appearances as a young, vibrant assistant-turned-head-coach of a major program. Collins was a fit at Northwestern so there's no issue there. But give Pitino a chance to see if this could work.

3. Old Dominion looked like it was set to go to former Western Kentucky and Georgia coach Dennis Felton before the Monarchs and athletic director Wood Selig tabbed American's Jeff Jones. This hire came out of left field, but might end up being one of the better fits. Jones played and coached at Virginia and should be able to recruit well in the fertile Tidewater area. Jones had made American a consistent Patriot League contender, which isn't easy to do in a conference where Bucknell and Lehigh are the anchors. ODU knows who it is and wanted to gravitate toward a coach that made sense. This hire does.

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