MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota center Ralph Sampson III could miss the Big Ten tournament because of a knee injury.
Coach Tubby Smith said that Sampson “tweaked” one of his knees in practice Monday and has not participated the last two days. Smith said he wasn’t sure if the senior would be able to play Thursday in the first-round game against Northwestern. If he can’t, freshman Elliott Eliason will start in his place. If the Gophers win, they’ll face No. 2 seed Michigan Friday in the quarterfinals.
The good news for Minnesota is that point guard Julian Welch will play after recovering from a hip injury that kept him out of the last 2½ games. Welch will come off the bench, but the junior is the team’s second-leading scorer. Over the three games before he got hurt, Welch totaled 42 points, 22 assists and 14 rebounds.
“I’m just looking to get back into the flow of things,” Welch said Wednesday before the Gophers left for Indianapolis. “Go get it done. No excuses. Everybody’s just looking to get out there and play hard and get this thing started on the right foot.”
The Gophers (18-13, 6-12) stopped a six-game losing streak Saturday with a win against Nebraska, but the Huskers are the only team they’ve beaten in nine games since the beginning of February.
With their NCAA tournament hopes gone, save for a stunning streak of four straight wins this weekend to win the Big Ten championship and an automatic bid, Smith has steered the Gophers back to basics. Ball handling and passing have been emphasized with the goal of minimizing the turnovers that largely contributed to their slide. They’ve spent more time shooting to improve mechanics, too.
So how’ve they fit it all in? Why, with an extra practice, of course.
Smith put the Gophers on a two-a-day, football-style schedule a few weeks ago to increase their opportunities to improve those critical skills. They don’t do that every day, but Monday and Tuesday this week they had their usual mid-afternoon workout — after a 6 a.m. roll call on the court.
“We needed more time,” Smith said, “and the morning was the best time to get it in.”
Reactions were mixed. Welch welcomed it.
“If you love basketball, you love getting up in the morning at 6 a.m. You don’t have anything else to do but sleep,” he said, smiling.
Junior power forward Rodney Williams was grinning, too, but with a different view.
“That definitely was a surprise to us. Nobody likes getting up at 6 a.m., but it worked out pretty good for us versus Nebraska,” he said.
The players stayed in a hotel — another football-like set-up — the night before that game, too, with the goal of sharpening their focus. Their previous home game on Feb. 26 against Indiana was arguably their worst performance of the season. So Smith wanted to change that.
“We’re going to start a new season. We expect to be playing a long time,” the coach said.
They made a Big Ten tournament run two years ago, winning three times before falling in the final. Williams and Sampson are the only players still around from that experience, but the Gophers spoke confidently this week of their ability to repeat that success this weekend.
“We’ve been working hard. We’re prepared,” freshman point guard Andre Hollins said. “We just have to translate that to the game.”
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