Richard Pitino

Improving defensively one of Minnesota’s focuses this offseason

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While Richard Pitino’s first season as the head coach at Minnesota didn’t finish with a trip to the NCAA tournament the Golden Gophers did experience success, winning 25 games and the Postseason NIT crown. The question facing Pitino and his program this offseason is what they’ll be able to do for an encore, and with four starters returning the NCAA tournament is a realistic expectation for the 2014-15 squad.

In an interview with Marcus R. Fuller of the Pioneer Press, Pitino discussed a variety of topics including what Minnesota needs to improve upon this summer. One area that came up: defense. And with that in mind, Pitino said he’s taking a different approach to evaluating where his team needs to get better defensively.

This offseason for me is going to be all about looking at our weaknesses and getting better at them. Right now, I’ve got our video guy breaking down every single basket that was scored on us. I’ve never done it before. We’re going to do a comprehensive study because our defense was not on par with our offense. We’re going to find out what the issues were and who was responsible for them. It’s going to be so much about improving on that because that was a weakness. We’ve got to get better at that.

The numbers certainly back up Pitino’s thoughts on Minnesota’s play on the defensive end of the floor, with the Golden Gophers finishing the season ranked ninth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (67.7 ppg allowed) and tenth in both field goal (42.6%) and three-point (34.3%) percentage defense.

And from a tempo-neutral standpoint, in conference play Minnesota was the Big Ten’s worst defensive team from an efficiency standpoint and they ranked tenth in the conference in defensive rebounding percentage.

The return of players such as guards Andre Hollins and Dre Mathieu and big men Elliot Eliason and Maurice Walker will help matters, as they’ll be more familiar with the things Pitino wants done on both ends of the floor. Also of note is the seven-member recruiting class that will give Minnesota the depth needed to play the uptempo style that Pitino prefers, hopefully with more consistency on defense coming as a result.

Minnesota has the tools needed to be a solid offensive team in 2014-15 but to take the next step the Golden Gophers will have to improve defensively, and Pitino has clearly zeroed in on that area heading into the summer.

Skal Labissiere has not been cleared by the NCAA

Kelly Kline/Under Armour
Kelly Kline/Under Armor
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While the timeline surrounding Cheick Diallo’s eligibility has made headlines for months now, another elite recruit at a blue blood program is still awaiting word on whether or not he will be allowed to play college basketball this season.

Kentucky center Skal Labissiere, the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2015 and a potential No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, has not yet been cleared to play this season. His guard, Gerald Hamilton, confirmed as much to ESPN earlier today.

“Not yet,” Hamilton said. “We’re just trying to get everything squared away. They are asking a few questions.

“They haven’t cleared him, but we’re sticking with our faith. There’s no real concern about anything from the Kentucky compliance people.”

Labissiere has more red flags than you can count, almost all of them pertaining to Hamilton. It was the worst kept secret in high school basketball that Hamilton more or less had Labissiere for sale. It’s why he played three different AAU programs and two different high schools in four years. Hamilton runs a non-profit called Reach Your Dream and, after a transfer rendered him ineligible for his senior high school season, Labissiere played for a team called ‘Reach Your Dream Prep’, which Hamilton founded simply to ensure Labissiere had a place to play.

Here’s how summarized things back in November:

Multiple coaches who have recruited Labissiere told Hamilton either directly indicated or strongly suggested pursuing Labissiere would mostly be a waste of time if they couldn’t offer assistance in helping fund his foundation. One coach from a prominent staff said: “We couldn’t even get in the door.” Another added: “We recognized what it was about early on and decided not to get involved.”

In other words, no one is surprised that the NCAA is looking into Labissiere’s situation, and it’s not hard to look at Kentucky bringing in Isaac Humphries and Tai Wynyard as a sign that they’re not completely certain that Labissiere will make it through this. The surprise is in how quiet that investigation has been over the course of the last few months.

The shame in all of this is that Labissiere is a sweet kid with an incredible back-story. He survived the devastating earthquake in Haiti despite having a house collapse on him. If he can get through this investigation, he’ll easily be one of the biggest and most likeable stars in the sport this season.

Xavier commit to enroll early, redshirt

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Xavier landed a commitment on Wednesday from four-star big man Eddie Ekiyor, a source confirmed to

Ekiyor, who picked the Musketeers over Miami and Florida, is a borderline top 100 recruit. He’s an athletic, 6-foot-8 post that shouldn’t have an issue adjusting to the pace and physicality of the game, although he needs to continue to develop offensively to be more than a catch-and-dunk big man down the road.

In other words, on paper, Ekiyor isn’t much different from the majority of high major big men. But what’s different about this situation is that Ekiyor will be enrolling at Xavier for the start of the spring semester, technically making him a member of the Class of 2015. Xavier won’t be rushing him through the process — he’ll redshirt the second half of the 2015-16 season — but getting him on campus early will allow him an extra six months of learning the Xavier system, developing in collegiate practices and working out with the Xavier strength coaches.

That should help him limit the adjustment phase as he transitions from high school. That’s important for the Musketeers, because there’s a chance that they could lose their starting front line — James Farr (graduation) and Jalen Reynolds (early entry) — after this season.