MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Al Nolen’s role for Minnesota has been reduced for now to encouragement from the bench.
All the other guys just got some extra responsibilities.
Replacing the senior point guard’s vocal leadership, sneaky-quick hands on defense and ball-handling ability will require a true team effort. The 16th-ranked Gophers will try to move on after losing Nolen to a broken right foot with only eight players in their rotation.
Blake Hoffarber will likely slide over to become the starting point guard, coach Tubby Smith said Tuesday. Smith was still mulling several possibilities for his altered five-man combinations.
“I really concentrated this summer on getting my passing game up and ball-handling and stuff like that,” said Hoffarber, who is already averaging 34 minutes per game. “I’ve shown it so far this year, with me moving to point guard if I have to. I think I’m confident with that, and I can handle the ball and get guys the open shots.”
Hoffarber will have to get himself some of those, too, as the sharpest shooter and leading scorer on the team. The Gophers can’t afford a drop in his offensive production, even if he’s able to match Nolen’s steadiness at the point.
Freshmen guards Maverick Ahanmisi, Chip Armelin and Austin Hollins will play a lot more. Small forward Rodney Williams could be shifted to shooting guard to allow Smith to use a rebound-friendly big lineup with Trevor Mbakwe, Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson.
The problem with that look, however, is the lack of backups in case of fatigue or foul trouble. Freshman Maurice Walker was spelling them, until he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
“We all have to take on bigger responsibilities,” Mbakwe said. “We’ve been playing with a big lineup, and we all have to get better on our perimeter defense. We all kind of just have to jell and get better on our defense, where we’re going to be lacking mostly with Al being gone.”
Ahanmisi, Armelin and Hollins are each averaging between two and four points and eight and 14 minutes per game. They’ll each be stretched more over the next six-plus weeks than the Gophers expected them to be, but Smith has repeatedly called this the most mature group of freshmen he’s had at Minnesota. Each showed flashes of potential in the nonconference portion of the season, and the Gophers (15-4, 4-3 Big Ten) are sounding optimistic they’ll be up to the task and help keep them in the conference race.
“They all come from homes and organizations and teams where they understand what sacrifice is about and what teamwork’s about,” Smith said. “That maturity is a big key to us staying focused, staying stable, staying balanced, not getting upset or disappointed.”
Williams is one of the most athletic players in the conference, with a quick first step, long arms and the capability of all kinds of rim-rattling, arena-roaring dunks. He has struggled with his shot for most of his career, though, and playing the “2″ spot is not a natural position for him.
In Saturday’s win at Michigan after Nolen went down late in the first half, Williams finished with 10 points and missed only one of his five shots.
“He’s been stepping up,” Smith said. “If he can just do what he did the other day and play the way he’s been playing the last couple games and just keep getting better, which I see him doing … that would be a big help.”
Nolen coming back in time for the tournaments would sure be a big help, too.
He’ll have surgery before Wednesday’s game against Northwestern to place a pin in his foot, and his return before the end of the season is uncertain. He said the injury Saturday felt like he’d been stabbed, after his foot rolled during a defensive sequence.
Nolen said he’d the optimal scenario is to be back by mid-March for either the Big Ten tournament or the NCAA tournament, should the Gophers get in.
“I’m going to try to rehab and do whatever I can to make it back, whether it’s one game, two games, whatever, just to help out the team,” Nolen said. “But until then, I’m going to have to be out there coaching.”
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