Both Jared Sullinger and Trevor Mbakwe have faced similar questions since the start of their productive seasons: Are they for real? The uncertainty exists because neither guy has faced the kind of inside threats that can seriously challenge them.
On Sunday, however, the two will face each other in Columbus, Ohio. Mbakwe, a 6-8, 250-pound power forward, is coming off an 11-point, 16-rebound, five-block performance in the Gophers' 67-63 victory over Indiana. Sullinger recorded 24 points and 12 rebounds in a 73-68 win over Iowa the same night.
Sullinger (10.1 rpg) and Mbakwe (9.9 rpg) are one and two, respectively, in the Big Ten in rebounding. They're both top-20 scorers. And along with Purdue's JaJuan Johnson, Michigan State's Draymond Green and Wisconsin's Jon Leuer, they're two of the Big Ten's -- the nation's? -- top inside players.
Their matchup Sunday will provide a major test for both players. At 6-9, 280 pounds, Sullinger has manhandled his opposition with his wide frame and mature skill set. But Mbakwe, who benches 340 pounds, has the strength to battle him in the paint.
Mbakwe hasn't faced a post threat like Sullinger. As an aggressive defender, foul trouble could quickly become a problem for him against Sullinger.
BEYOND THE BOX SCORE: With all of their offcourt drama, the Gophers need a leader. And this season, Al Nolen has stepped up multiple times to fill that role. But they needed him most against Indiana on Jan. 4. Devoe Joseph had just walked away from the team, a move that could affect team chemistry for the rest of the season.
After making only 1 of 10 shots in the team's first two Big Ten road games, Nolen scored 14 points against the Hoosiers. And he was the vocal instructor keeping them in synch, even when Indiana took a big lead. He kept the team together despite its problems away from the floor.
--Al Nolen had one of the best all-around efforts of his career as the Gophers beat Indiana 67-63 Tuesday night at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. Nolen, who recorded 14 points, six rebounds, four assists, four steals and two turnovers, led a Gophers team that was emotionally drained after junior combo guard Devoe Joseph left the team over the weekend. The Gophers recorded a pair of 10-0 runs in the second half. Indiana took a nine-point lead in the first half before Minnesota's surge after halftime.
--Before the season began, NBA minds labeled sophomore wing Rodney Williams as a possible lottery pick. His YouTube clips prove that he has the athleticism to play at the next level -- check out the 360 from just inside the free throw line. But the second-year man hasn't found a rhythm on either side of the floor.
Tubby Smith said he wants Williams to be his best overall defender and a contributor on offense. But he had seven steals and eight blocks through Jan. 2, not sufficient for top three on the team in either category. And offensively, he was 2-for-18 from the three-point line.
--Every season, Tubby Smith's name is mentioned when top jobs become vacant. But the fourth-year coach says he likes Minnesota and feels the program is headed in the right direction.
That didn't stop various reports from linking Smith to the Charlotte Bobcats vacancy recently. Team owner Michael Jordan and Smith are good friends. And although discussions started early last year, Smith has not signed an extension with the Gophers. Plus, the practice facility he's craved from Day 1 is still an idea without the funding to make it a reality.
It also didn't help that Smith's desire to hire Jimmy Williams as an assistant in 2007 and athletic Joel Maturi's refusal resulted in a highly publicized court trial over the summer. Williams won a $1 million judgment against the university. With all of the extra static, Gophers supporters will probably endure another offseason of "What if?" when it comes to Smith's future.
BY THE NUMBERS: 63.4 -- The Gophers' shooting percentage from the free throw line this season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I know our team is more relaxed and I think they're playing that way. It's good to have guys doing what they're supposed to do and not have all the distractions." -- Tubby Smith on being more relaxed this year. Last year, he endured a variety of off-court trouble within his program.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: --at Ohio State, Jan. 9
KEY MATCHUPS: The Gophers haven't won at Ohio State under Tubby Smith. And it's hard to imagine that anything will change this time. Jared Sullinger has gone from freshman to watch to National Player of the Year candidate. But Sullinger vs. Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe is one of the most highly anticipated matchups in Big Ten play.
FUTURES MARKET: When Tubby Smith scored Memphis prep star Andre Hollins, he believed he'd found a gem. Hollins wasn't on many Top 100 lists, after playing on a very talented White Station squad. As the No. 1 guy on this season's team, however, he's sparkled and exploded onto the national scene.
Hollins scored 46 points against Findlay Prep, the No. 1 team in America. Findlay Prep coach Michael Peck said Hollins is one of the best players in the country. "He is one of the best four players this program has ever faced, and I'd compare him to one of our best in Avery Bradley, who's now with the Boston Celtics," Peck told reporters. "Hollins moved, hesitated, got himself open for his shot -- and from 8-15 feet, he was money all night. If he's not considered Top 10 nationally now, he will be."
--Freshman C Mo Walker was officially diagnosed with a torn meniscus and PCL, an injury he suffered in the team's final nonconference game, last week. Walker, a Canadian prep who'd become a key part of the rotation, will have surgery in the coming weeks and will not play for the rest of the season.
--Junior F Trevor Mbakwe had eight double-doubles entering the week, one of the top marks in the nation thus far. In two other games, he was a rebound away from a double-double. His 10.0 rebounds per game in the first two weeks of the season put him atop the league's rebounding charts.