Nolen had five assists and a whopping 11 turnovers total in games against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Purdue. Not surprisingly, Minnesota lost two of the three in its first rough stretch of the season.
Nolen played much better in a Jan. 25 victory against Indiana — a victory much closer than it should have been considering it was against the worst team in the league. Still, Nolen's six assists and one turnover were a welcomed sight for coach Tubby Smith, who was never overly concerned about the slump.
One good game against a woeful Hoosiers squad does not automatically mean Nolen is back, but it's a good start. Upcoming games against Illinois, Michigan State and Ohio State will determine whether or not he's all the way back.
"We're at the point now where teams have had plenty of time to scout you and put you in situations where you're uncomfortable — forcing you to your weak hand and things," Smith said. "I think he's being a little too cautious, to be honest. We want him to be more aggressive in passing the ball and trusting your teammates."
Trust in a deep roster is what carried Minnesota near the top of the Big Ten standings. It's also the real shot the Gophers have in staying there.
This week could determine Minnesota's fate, with games against Illinois and Michigan State. The Illini and Spartans are a combined 11-3 in the league. The Gophers, already with three league losses, can ill-afford another.
"We want to stay on pace and keep our eye on the goal," Smith said. "To compete in the Big Ten and stay in the hunt, you have to find ways to win."
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — G Lawrence Westbrook, G Al Nolen, F Damian Johnson, F Ralph Sampson III, C Colton Iverson. Key Subs — G Blake Hoffarber, F Paul Carter, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, G/F Travis Busch, G Devoe Joseph, G Devron Bostick.
IN FOCUS: The only game this week is against Illinois, which has played well since losing at Michigan State on Jan. 17. Since then, the Illini pounded Ohio State by 18 and beat Wisconsin by seven. At least the Gophers will be in Williams Arena, where they're confidence level — and performance — has been much higher this season. The Gophers need a victory to stay in contention in the Big Ten.
Northwestern 74, Minnesota 65
Purdue 70, Minnesota 62
Minnesota 67, Indiana 63
vs. Illinois, Thursday, Jan. 29
at Michigan State, Wednesday, Feb. 4
at Ohio State, Saturday, Feb. 7