Getting Inside: UM Basketball 1/20

He's a 6-foot-11 question mark who holds the keys to the Gophers' future. Perhaps that's a bit dramatic, but Ralph Sampson III changes everything when he influences the game with his length, energy and skills. But when the junior center scales back his intensity level, the whole team feels it.

In his last two games, he's hustled for loose balls. He's blocked shots with ferocity.

There have been other stretches, however, when he's appeared to be listless and admittedly was out-of-sync. Instead of utilizing his size inside, he sometimes takes himself away from the rim, shooting 3-pointers instead of hooks.

Sampson was averaging 10.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game through Jan. 16, but he could produce even more if played the game with consistent energy.

His teammates and coaches believe he can take his game to another level. Tubby Smith, a coach who's tutored numerous future pros throughout his career, said Sampson can evolve into an NBA player.

"That's why he'll be playing at the next level for a long time," Smith said after Sampson recorded seven blocks in the Gophers' victory over Iowa on Jan. 16.

Sampson seems to understand that his defensive prowess could lead to greater production and future paydays.

"Defense wins championships," he said.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Senior G Blake Hoffarber scored 26 points in the Gophers' Jan. 13 win over eighth-ranked Purdue but went 2-for-10 and scored nine points in the team's next game, a victory over Iowa. That was after Tubby Smith said he wanted to get Hoffarber more touches. The Hawkeyes, however, employed the same harassing defensive pressure that's frustrated Hoffarber in the past. The career 42 percent 3-point shooter missed all four of his attempts from beyond the arc against Iowa.

--The Gophers continued to struggle in their half-court set, but they'd been solid in transition. They pressure teams with tough defense and race up the floor for quick baskets. Athletes like Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe excel in that style. The dunkers are difficult to stop. It's also easier for Hoffarber to get open. The problem for the team is its limited depth. Playing on the run demands more bodies and oxygen, so the Gophers will employ that strategy, but only in spurts.

--Junior F Trevor Mbakwe is on pace to become the first Gophers player to lead the Big Ten in rebounding since Kris Humphries did it in 2004. He was averaging 11.7 boards per game in league play through Jan. 16.

BY THE NUMBERS: 28.2 -- The Gophers' shooting percentage from the 3-point arc in conference play through Jan. 16. They led the Big Ten in 3-point shooting last season, but they lost Lawrence Westbrook and Devoe Joseph, a pair of sharpshooters who anchored last season's team. Westbrook graduated, and Joseph transferred to Oregon earlier this month.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We knew Iowa was going to come in and play tough. It's been the story of the year. We play in spurts, and that's something we gotta get better at. ... This is the Big Ten. Every opponent is going to be tough, regardless of if you're at home or away." -- Gophers F Trevor Mbakwe, after Iowa went on a 13-2 run to start the second half during Minnesota's 69-59 victory Jan. 16.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAME:

--at Michigan, Jan. 22

KEY MATCHUPS: Darius Morris has become one of the best young point guards in the country. Through Jan. 16, he was leading the Big Ten in assists (6.8 apg), and he was in the top 10 in scoring (15.4 ppg). But he's never faced a defender like Gophers point guard Al Nolen, who led the Big Ten in steals (2.33 spg).

FUTURES MARKET: Before the year began, Rodney Williams was called a potential lottery pick by NBA pundits. He's a potential highlight reel every time he touches the ball. The 6-foot-7 athlete has the size and athleticism to play at the next level, but he's still developing the skills necessary to excel in the Big Ten. He was 2-for-23 from the 3-point arc through Jan. 16. However, his defense was improving, and he finally understands that he's most effective when he attacks the basket. He recorded three dunks in his team's win over Iowa.

PLAYER NOTES

--Junior F Trevor Mbakwe didn't start against Purdue or Iowa after a Jan. 10 arrest for allegedly violating a harassment restraining order filed by a former girlfriend two years ago. Coach Tubby Smith did not suspend Mbakwe, but he said the standout forward would be punished internally. Mbakwe missed last season while awaiting trial for a felony assault charge. He never pleaded guilty but entered a pretrial intervention program to resolve that case.

--Freshman F Maurice Walker underwent successful surgery to repair a torn PCL and meniscus, an injury he suffered in the team's last nonconference game Dec. 23. The rehabilitation process could last up to eight months.


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