Getting Inside: Gopher Basketball

During the Puerto Rico Tipoff, dozens of NBA scouts sat courtside, where they had the opportunity to see future NBA lottery picks John Henson and Harrison Barnes up close. The majority of them probably didn't know anything about the Gophers or their newest weapon.

GETTING INSIDE

Trevor Mbakwe was an unknown commodity before the Gophers won that tournament -- which also featured North Carolina, Vanderbilt and West Virginia -- and Mbakwe took home MVP honors.

The same NBA scouts who didn't know he existed before the Puerto Rico Tipoff scribbled notes as he exploded onto the national scene with rim-rattling dunks and shot blocks against the guys they traveled to see.

He's the 6-8, 260-pound reason that the early prognosticators have associated "Gophers" with "possible NCAA tournament run" for the first time in nearly a decade. And he's the inside force that coach Tubby Smith has lacked during his three-plus years with the Gophers.

In past years, the Gophers wouldn't have any hope against Big Ten post threats like Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, Michigan State's Draymond Green or Purdue's JaJuan Johnson. Now they have their own.

Through 10 games, he'd averaged 13.8 points per contest and led the league in rebounding (10.2 per game).

He's one of the reasons that the Gophers have gone from borderline tourney team to borderline Big Ten contender.

But to make a serious run at the league title, they'll have to correct serious flaws like their discouraging free-throw shooting (63.1 percent) and their nonexistent perimeter defense (37.3 percent three-point field goal percentage defense). Still, Mbakwe's early success suggests the Gophers have the tools to compete with the best teams in the league.

NOTES, QUOTES

--All was well with Al Nolen. He'd bounced back from academic issues that kept him off the floor during the bulk of the Big Ten season a year ago and once again stood atop the steals leaderboard (2.8).

He went 11-for-12 from the charity stripe and scored 17 points against West Virginia in the Puerto Rico Tipoff title game. And then, a lingering foot injury sidelined him following Minnesota's victory over North Dakota State Nov. 24. As the Gophers prepared to play Akron Dec. 15, Nolen still hadn't returned.

Sources close to the program say the senior guard has been diagnosed with plantar fasciitis and could miss the start of the Big Ten season. But Tubby Smith seems more hopeful. He said Nolen would try to work out with orthotics in his shoes and attempt to play sooner rather than later.

But even he's not sure if he will have his starting point guard during a crucial Big Ten season-opening stretch that begins with road trips to Wisconsin and Michigan State.

--Before the year started, Tubby Smith said Ralph Sampson III had All-America potential. The 6-11 son of one of the greatest college players of all-time, Ralph Sampson Jr., began to make a name for himself with a strong start to the 2010-11 season that included four consecutive double-digit scoring efforts in his team's first four games.

But a lackluster three-game stretch in which he scored a total of 13 points followed, leaving many to wonder if the promising big man will ever find a way to snap out of his up-and-down playing pattern that seems to stem from a varying intensity level. Sampson admitted that he's not always as dialed-in as he needs to be every night but added that he's working on maintaining more focus throughout the season.

Proof: He followed that disappointing three-game stretch with three more double-digit scoring efforts, including a 19-point, 6-for-6 effort (7-for-8 from the foul line) in Minnesota's 71-58 victory over Eastern Kentucky Dec. 11. But as the Gophers prepare for Big Ten play, the question surrounding Sampson's production remains: Will it last?

PLAYER TO WATCH: Chip Armelin is a spark plug off the bench, averaging 4.8 points in 11.4 minutes per game while shooting 46.5 percent from the field. He's not bad on defense, either. He began the month of December by recording a steal in the team's first three games. The 6-3 guard was athletic enough to earn Division I football scholarship offers in high school, but luckily for the Gophers, he chose basketball.

For a Gophers team that plays everybody, Armelin could be a major weapon for Tubby Smith off the bench during Big Ten season.

KEY CONFERENCE GAME: Dec. 31 at Michigan State -- After losing to Michigan State seven consecutive times under Tubby Smith, the Gophers finally broke through with a 72-67 overtime upset over the Spartans in the Big Ten tourney last season. The Gophers want to prove that their big victory over the Final Four squad wasn't a fluke while making a statement about their Big Ten title prospects in a huge road test.

Trevor Mbakwe will get his first shot to face one of the league's versatile post threats, Draymond Green.

QUOTE TO NOTE:"We're going to stop shooting free throws completely because it doesn't work, shooting 100 free throws. We're just not going to shoot them (in practice). Maybe it'll work, because it's not working otherwise." -- Coach Tubby Smith.


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