The team that beat North Carolina, West Virginia and Purdue with Nolen, lost to Indiana, Penn State and Illinois without him. The senior point guard, however, has tweeted that he's aiming for a Big Ten tourney return.
And that could salvage the Gophers' postseason hopes. But they can't take any chances, since he might not come back.
Three of their last four regular-season outings, including a Tuesday matchup against Michigan State, are at home. They have multiple opportunities to steady the ship before the conference tourney and prove to the selection committee that they're worthy of an at-large bid, even if their floor leader is sidelined for the rest of the year.
--Coach Tubby Smith's move to a 2-3 zone has helped freshman Austin Hollins become a much-needed ball hawk. He's averaged 1.14 steals in Big Ten play, the seventh-best mark in the conference. Hollins, son of Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, acts like a free safety in the scheme, intercepting and deflecting cross-court passes. It's a huge boost for the Gophers who lost Al Nolen last month. He was the Big Ten's steals leader before he suffered a foot injury.
--G Blake Hoffarber has been forced into an uncomfortable situation. For three-plus seasons, he earned a reputation as one of the top shooters in the country. But a move to point guard after Nolen's injury has affected his production. He's shooting 39 percent from the three-point line, a sharp decline from last year's 47 percent clip. The change can't be completely blamed on Hoffarber's position switch. He's added new wrinkles to his game, like a midrange jumper, so he's not relying on the three-pointer the way he did in past years. But he's focused on being a distributor instead of the shooter he's been for the program. Still, he's managed to average 14.0 points per game.
--If the Gophers can't figure out a way to pull out a few late-season victories, they might need another Big Ten tourney miracle to earn an at-large bid to the Big Dance. Last season, the Gophers endured a stretch that included seven losses in 10 games. But a run to the Big Ten title game solidified their status as a tourney team. This year, they're riding a slump in which they've lost five out of six matchups.
BY THE NUMBERS: 3 -- Conference road wins for the Gophers in each of Tubby Smith's first three seasons. They've won two Big Ten road games (at Michigan, at Iowa) this year. They play at Northwestern March 2.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's just a totally different team now. They play a 2-3 zone. I've never seen that in four years playing against these guys. When Al (Nolen) was out there, he could pretty much guard anybody's best perimeter player." -- Penn State coach Talor Battle after his team's 66-63 victory over the Gophers in State College, Pa., Feb. 17.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Michigan State, Feb. 22
KEY MATCHUPS: The Gophers can't afford many losses in their last-ditch effort to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. They're playing Michigan State at the worst time. Kalin Lucas has scored 20 points or more in five of his team's last seven games. They'll have to find a way to limit the dazzling point guard with starting point guard Al Nolen sidelined.
--vs. Michigan, Feb. 26
KEY MATCHUPS: The Gophers face another feisty point guard in Michigan's Darius Morris. The sophomore is averaging 15.4 points per game entering the week. The Wolverines have won four of their last five games. Freshman Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn't play like his father. But he's a smooth athlete who's grown into an impact player for the Wolverines.
FUTURES MARKET: The Gophers have played a chunk of the season without starting point guard Al Nolen, who suffered a broken foot in a game last month. Tubby Smith obviously hopes the senior returns, but is also looking for his replacement. Various players could run the program next season. Incoming freshman Andre Hollins, a star at Memphis' White Station high school, plays the position at the prep level. But he's projected as a combo guard in Division I. Chris Colvin, a junior college guard and former star at Chicago Whitney Young, is also a possibility. Julian Welch, a combo guard at Yuba Community College, also interests Smith. Bottom line is that the Gophers are looking for a new floor leader.
--Senior G Al Nolen is pushing for a return by the Big Ten tournament. He recently tweeted this to one of his followers: "yea that's what I'm hoping for get back for the big ten tourney but idk yet hopefully tho."
--Junior F Trevor Mbakwe recorded his 15th double-double of the season in a 66-63 loss at Penn State Feb. 17. That mark is tied for 15th in the country.