Puerto Rico Title Preview: Minnesota

West Virginia looks to win its second consecutive in-season tournament as it plays red-hot Minnesota in the finals of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off today at 7:30 p.m.


Minnesota (4-0) comes off a win over No. 8 North Carolina, by ranking an upset. But based upon the way to Gophers dominated UNC on the boards and simply outplayed the storied program, it appears early that head coach Tubby Smith has a legit Big Ten contender. This will be the most physical team WVU has played this season, with a pair of starters 6-8 or taller weighing at least 240 pounds and and two even more sizeable players off the bench. The starting center, Ralph Samson III – son of the former NBA All-Star – averages 17 points and eight rebounds. The junior has already amassed 400 points, 300 rebounds and 100 blocks in his collegiate career. Longer and taller than any Mountaineer player (Kevin Noreen, coincidentally a Minnesota native, is WVU's tallest player at 6-10), he could dominate the boards if not handled physically. Sampson III's game is entirely interior. He won't shoot the three (he takes about one a game) and isn't a major jumpshooting threat. But he does convert from the foul line, and has polished ability in the paint. His wingspan alone causes issues on the defensive end, and he'll change shots. This will be a game in which Joe Mazzulla and Truck Bryant could have difficult driving because of the length they'll face. That, along with Minnesota's rebounding and WVU's lackadaisical free throw shooting, will make shot percentages important. The Mountaineers need to be solid from the field and, to a lesser extent, the three-point line (threes usually carom off the rim farther than closer shots, and so pure length is not as great a factor in rebounding).

Forward Trevor Mbawke (6-10, 240 lbs.) is hitting for 13.5 points and 10 boards a game through UM's first four contests. Mbawke originally signged with Marqiette after his prep career in St. Paul, then transferred to Miami Dade College before signing with Minnesota. A redshirt junior, Mbawke is in his first season starting for the Gophers. He has made 67 percent from the field, but just 50 from the line (12 of 24), and he will turn the ball over. The team's best offensive rebounder, West Virginia will need to find Mbawke and challenge him on every shot. Swingman Rodney Williams (6-7, 200 lbs.), also out of the Twin Cities area, is the best frontcourt shooter of the three. He has started the season cold, missing more shots than he has made, including seven of nine from three-point range. He can warm quickly, but is pretty much the stereotypical small forward that West Virginia will see from major conference foes this year.

The bigger issue will be facing a savvy, veteran point guard in Al Nolen (6-1, 188 lbs.). The senior averages the fewest points of the starters at eight per game, and he won't take many shots inside the arc. But he does exactly what Smith asks, namely distributing the ball well and causing opposing turnovers. Nolen has 10 steals and a solid 16 to 11 assist to turnover ratio. His issue thus far has been free throw shooting, as 56 percent from the point position isn't close to the numbers Minnesota will need. Nolen and Mazzulla will match each other well, and both are heady, physical players who see significant minutes. Two-guard Blake Hoffarber (6-4, 210 lbs.) is likely the Gophers best player on two fronts, though only one of those has shown itself early. The senior has 24 assist to seven turnovers and is playing well within the offense, moving to find open shots and getting others involved. But he has yet to find the shooting touch of past seasons. Hoffarber is fourth on the school's all-time three-point shooting percentage list (41.8%), but has missed 23 of 34 this year in shooting just 37.2 percent overall. An opportunistic, intelligent player, Hoffarber is automatic from the line at better than 90 percent (11 of 12). This is the last player on the roster West Virginia wants to foul in late game situations. It's also the player they'll have to guard tightest at the perimeter.

Game Info
Sun. Nov. 21
7:30 p.m. EST

Coliseo de Puerto Rico
WVU 3-0
Minnesota 4-0
WVU 2-1
WVU - 4
Minnesota - 40

Smith has gone about three to four players deep off the bench, and is still trying various rotations as he works with extremely young reserves. The only non-freshman backup to see major time is junior forward Colton Iverson (6-10, 258 lbs.). Another huge body, Iverson plays about 15 minutes and averages six points and six rebounds. His, too, is an entirely inside game. He is making 56 percent of his shots and is decent at the line, and his sheer size enables him to block shots well. This is Smith's best sub, and the one in which he has the most confidence. The other frontcourt reserve is Maurice Walker (6-10, 289 lbs.). If it's possible, Smith has found an even bigger body to add to the roster. The newcomer is playing just seven minutes and it's possible he might not see the floor at all against the Mountaineers. The physical stature is there, but Walker (a Canadian) will need some time to hone skill. The backcout backups are freshmen Austin Hollins (6-4, 180 lbs.) and Chip Armelin (6-3, 186 lbs.). Hollins, whose father, Lionel, is a former NBA player and the current head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, plays about 14 minutes and averages almost five points per game. A good shooter, Hollins has hit 44 percent from three. That dips considerably when he is guarded well, and like most first-year players Hollins is trying to find his role. Armelin plays 10 minutes and has made seven of 16 shots. He hasn't handled the ball well, and if often forced into errors.


Minnesota is nothing if not big and physical. The Gophers have good outside shooters and quality interior play that rebound well. The issue is depth. Smith has three freshman in his top four backups, and any foul trouble will be magnified because of this. West Virginia should be fresher because of player numbers (and foul outs), and it must take advantage of any run-out situations it has because of Minnesota's size. Shooting and transition points will be key for the Mountaineers. Minnesota is content to play a halfcourt game and take its fast break opportunities as they arise, much like WVU last season. West Virginia might need to run a bit more than it has in past games, but it must not neglect working the block and trying to get UM in foul trouble. If the game is called tightly, that should be a Mountaineer edge, if free throws are made. Deniz Kilicli could loom large in this one, as his scoring ability inside via a variety of moves could keep the larger Minnesota players of balance and having to help or foul, creating opportunities for others or free points, as Kilicli is solid at the line. Battle on the boards, shoot well and play the typical Bob Huggins defense and this is winnable. But that's difficult against a team of Minnesota's size with their veteran guard play.


WVU: None.

Minnesota: None.


The Mountaineers are listed as 2-1 all-time against Minnesota, though the Golden Gophers have vacated the 1996 win. That game was played at Minnesota, where WVU "lost" 76-61.

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West Virginia has allowed foes to shoot 50 percent or better just 16 times under Huggins.

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The UM-WVU series started in 1966 with a 93-88 Mountaineer win at the Far West Classic in Portland, Ore. West Virginia also won at Minnesota in a memorable NIT quarterfinal game in 1981.

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Huggins is 6-0 all-time against the Gophers. All came when Huggins coached Cincinnati. Smith is 1-0 against West Virginia. His Kentucky squad beat WVU 80-66 in the 2005 Guardians Classic. Huggins is 0-1 against Smith, as UK beat UC 69-60 in the 2005 NCAA Tournament's second round.

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WVU is 80-77 against current Big Ten members.

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Minnesota, called the Gopher state since 1857, didn't adopt the Golden Gopher mascot for its flagship university until 1934, because of the all-gold uniforms. That color was chosen by Bernie Bierman (what else would his last name be?) because he thought it was harder for foes to see a football being carried against a gold uniform.

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With respect to West Virginia's Golden Delicious apple being the state fruit, Minnesota goes a bit more in-depth with a state grain (wild oat), muffin (blueberry) and mushroom (morel) in addition to the fruit – a Honeycrisp apple. Minnesota's Honeycrisp, a reddish-yellow color, is a heartier varietal than the Golden Delicious and stores more effectively. But it lacks the overall flavor and texture, and isn't considered as fine for apple sauce and apple butter.

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