Gophers Face Daunting Conference Schedule

The Gophers finished their pre-conference schedule with a 12-1 record to tie for the most non-league wins by Minnesota in the Tubby Smith era. But the record is somewhat deceiving when looking at the schedule with a magnifying glass.

Minnesota played 10 of the 13 games at home, while three games were at neutral site in a tournament in Orlando.

The Gophers showed their inability to handle adverse situations in the Big Ten opener Tuesday, when they failed to take advantage of several opportune moments in dropping an 81-72 double-overtime decision at Illinois. Minnesota (12-2) couldn't take advantage of 21 Illini turnovers.

The Gophers now turn their attention to a Jan. 1 road game against Michigan. Minnesota's frontcourt, which lost preseason All-America forward Trevor Mbakwe to a season-ending injury, will rely heavily on Ralph Sampson III during the conference season. After missing the first two post-Mbakwe games with an ankle injury, Sampson III is helping solidify the post. Against Illinois, Sampson played 39 minutes and finished with 22 points and nine rebounds.

Forward Rodney Williams has been a pleasant surprise the last few weeks since Mbakwe's injury. Williams, who had eight points and seven rebounds in the loss at Illinois, has benefitted from the extra space line in the lane and is providing solid minutes as a starter.

The Gophers, though, must deal with question marks at the two guard spots. Minnesota has good depth at guard, but three guards -- Julian Welch, Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman -- played their first Big Ten game at Illinois. The lack of guard experience, plus the loss of Mbakwe, might be too tough for the Gophers to overcome in a tougher-than-expected Big Ten.

"We hear the Big Ten is hard, but we're ready for it," Hollins said. "Our guards are a strength. We lost our leader in Trevor, so it has to pick up somewhere."

NOTES, QUOTES

--Junior G Julian Welch is the guy the Gophers want handling the ball during crunch time. Welch had a string of 25 straight made free throws working until he missed one in a recent win over St. Peter's. Welch, a junior college transfer in his first season with the Gophers, entered Big Ten play ranked third in the conference in free throw shooting accuracy at 87.5 percent.

--F Ralph Sampson III, the only senior in the playing rotation now that F Trevor Mbakwe is lost for the season with a knee injury, is headed into the Minnesota record book as one of the most productive big men in school history and has a chance to become just the fifth player at Minnesota to finish his career with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 150 blocks. Only Kevin McHale, Randy Bruer, Mychal Thompson and Michael Bauer have reached that elite level. Sampson entered Big Ten play in his senior season with 876 points, 542 rebounds and 180 blocked shots.

--Minnesota has led the Big Ten Conference in blocked shots during the last three seasons and should be right back near the top again in 2011-12. Senior F Ralph Sampson III led the team in blocked shots last season and is currently fourth all-time in program history with 180 career blocks as he leads his team into the start of Big Ten conference play.

BY THE NUMBERS: 7 -- In the pre-Big Ten schedule, Minnesota played seven players who are in their first season of action with the Golden Gophers. Through their 13 non-conference games, the Gophers used three true freshmen, a pair of redshirt freshmen and two junior college transfers.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We ran into a team that is really starting to evolve and overcome the loss of Trevor Mbakwe. Minnesota really shot the ball well, they were efficient, and we struggled at times to continue to guard when Minnesota shared the ball. They had 24 assists." -- Central Michigan coach Ernie Zeigler after the Gophers beat his team two weeks before the start of the Big Ten season

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAME:

--at Michigan, Jan. 1

KEY MATCHUPS: The Wolverines sport balance but usually look to sophomore G Tim Hardaway Jr. for clutch points so Minnesota will have to answer with strong defense from G Julian Welch. The Gophers will enjoy a size advantage in the middle with 6-11 F Ralph Sampson III matched up against Michigan's 6-8 Jordan Morgan. Michigan's 6-9 F Evan Smotrycz is a very effective shooter with good range, so the Minnesota defense needs to chase him out on the three-point arc.

STAR WATCH: With preseason All-American Trevor Mbakwe out for the season, Ralph Sampson III is expected to carry a bigger load in scoring, rebounding and leadership. Thus far, after getting healthy following a two-game absence caused by an ankle injury, the 6-foot-10 Sampson is living up his to famous father's name. Sampson entered Big Ten play averaging 8.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. The Minnesota coaching staff has been encouraging Sampson to play tougher, stay out of foul trouble and put himself on both ends. Against Illinois, Sampson did that by tying his career high with 22 points and by grabbing nine rebounds in 39 minutes. Sampson has scored in double figures in four of his last five games.

FUTURES MARKET: The Golden Gophers have been pleasantly surprised by the strong showing of freshman F Elliott Eliason, who started three of the four pre-Big Ten games that senior F Ralph Sampson III was slowed with an ankle injury. Eliason played 32 minutes in the win over Virginia Tech, with eight points and seven rebounds. He should provide much-needed depth inside as the Big Ten schedule starts to grind on and wear down the starters.

PLAYER NOTES --Senior C Ralph Sampson III is coming off one of his best games in a Minnesota uniform, as he contributed 22 points and nine rebounds in 39 minutes at Illinois. Sampson displayed toughness in the post and played a key role at the end of regulation with several key baskets. The 22 points tied Sampson's career high, and he hit eight of 19 shots. The 6-foot-10 Sampson has scored in double figures in four of the past five games, and he's scored 15 or more points in three of the past four contests. Before the streak, Sampson had scored more than eight points in just one game this season.

--Junior G Julian Welch is quickly making a name for himself at Minnesota. After playing one season at UC Davis and one year at Yuba Community College, Welch is settling into a nice role for the Gophers. The 6-foot-3, 197-pounder started his seventh straight game in the loss at Illinois, scoring 15 points and hitting a pair of 3-pointers. Welch's scoring gives the Gophers some much-needed offensive punch while helping open up the inside. Welch had a streak of eight double-digit scoring games broken against North Dakota State. Welch is giving the Gophers a reliable outside threat, s he's gone 11 consecutive games with a 3-pointer.

--F Trevor Mbakwe, who led the Big Ten in rebounding last season, tore the ACL in his right knee in a late November loss to Dayton and is out for the season. Mbakwe finished his junior season with 19 double-doubles.

--G Andre Hollins sat out the Saint Peter's game after tweaking his ankle in a previous outing against Appalachian State. He wore a brace on the injured ankle and played in the win over Central Michigan, but did not start. He was replaced in the starting lineup by G Maverick Ahanmisi.


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