For Rodney Williams and Ralph Sampson III, Trevor Mbakwe’s season-ending injury was supposed to be a blessing in disguise.
If nothing else, it was an opportunity for the Gophers’ two most veteran players to assert their leadership on a team that lacked experience, star power and a proven scorer.
But while the two forwards have had moments of individual brilliance, they have rarely played well together — a problem evident in Minnesota’s recent losses.
Williams scored a career-high 21 points in Tuesday’s 78-68 loss to Ohio State. After a slow start, the junior exploded for 17 points and five rebounds in the second half against the Buckeyes’ elite frontcourt.
Sampson started well, but the senior finished with just four points and two rebounds in 12 minutes.
The two forwards took turns guarding Jared Sullinger — and often partnered up to double-team him — but allowed 23 points from the Buckeyes’ star. Sullinger also committed just one turnover.
Williams and Sampson are two of the top-seven shot-blockers in the Big Ten. Yet they have allowed opposing big men to one-up them all season long.
On offense and defense, the lack of chemistry between Sampson and Williams has been a persistent issue.
Despite being the Gophers’ first- and fourth-leading scorers, the two haven’t combined to score more than 30 points in a game this season. Ohio State’s top two scorers, Sullinger and William Buford, have 15 combined 30-point efforts.
On Tuesday, Sullinger and Buford missed open looks and were forced into taking perimeter shots. Neither player’s effort was close to his best of the season.
Yet the two Buckeyes combined for 47 points and 16 rebounds as Ohio State won its conference-leading 10th game.
Sampson had his best game of the season in the Gophers’ conference-opening loss to Illinois, scoring 22 points to rally Minnesota back from a 13-point deficit and force overtime.
Williams, who averages a team-best 11.1 points, had just eight points against the Illini and was benched down the stretch.
Williams recovered, scoring 56 points in his next four games. But during that same stretch, Sampson had 22 points and 12 turnovers.
In the Gophers’ two losses in their recent homestand against Wisconsin and Ohio State, Sampson managed a pair of four-point performances while Williams carried the team with 16- and 21-point efforts.
Success without Sampson
For the most part, Williams has been the player who has led Minnesota through an up-and-down Big Ten season, with Sampson and the young guards playing well only in spurts.
Yet talks have quieted about Williams’ leadership potential since Sampson returned from an ankle injury Dec. 6.
In the three nonconference games Sampson sat out, Williams was at his best, scoring 38 points while shooting 80 percent from the field.
More importantly, the junior was allowed to operate in the paint as Minnesota’s only inside scoring threat sans Mbakwe.
When Mbakwe went down, Williams shifted to power forward, which enabled him to frequently post up while occasionally running the pick-and-roll with the Gophers’ guards.
Arguably Minnesota’s most important win this season — a 58-55 home upset of Virginia Tech three days after Mbakwe’s injury — coincided with Williams’ breakout performance at the power forward spot, as well as an inspired effort from Sampson’s backup, Elliott Eliason.
After a successful nonconference season, the normally soft-spoken Williams vowed to score even more.
“I’m definitely going to have to be more of a scoring threat, especially in the Big Ten,” Williams said Dec. 26, a day before the team’s conference opener.
He added: “I’m more focused on getting points inside, because that’s where I’m at most of the time.”
But as the season has progressed and Sampson’s injury has healed, Williams has played less like a power forward and more like the small forward who has underachieved for most of his collegiate career.
Under head coach Tubby Smith’s flex offense, Williams has played more on the perimeter, looking to drive to the rim or find a cutting guard rather than post up.
Meanwhile, Sampson has continued to play out of the post, where he has drawn more boos from disgruntled Williams Arena fans than fouls from defenders. Sampson has taken 35 free throws in 23 games.
It’s a far cry from what Sampson said he envisioned his role to be before the Big Ten season.
“I feel like my scoring role is definitely taking a big upward turn,” Sampson said Dec. 26. “I’m the only one with inside experience in the post area. Being the primary scorer inside, I feel like I have to take on a bigger role now and make teams double-team me.”
The emergence of Minnesota’s young guards has helped it combat its struggles inside, but it hasn’t put the Gophers over the hump.
Sitting at 5-8 in the Big Ten, Minnesota will likely need to finish the conference season 3-2 — which means upsetting two opponents — to make the NCAA tournament.
If history is any indication, that success is in the hands of the team’s veterans: Williams and Sampson.
They’ll likely need to learn to play together first.
Next up: Northwestern
When Minnesota beat Northwestern 75-52 on Jan. 22 at Williams Arena, it seemed clear that the Gophers were the better team.
That’s not the case a month later, as the two teams boast identical conference records (5-8) heading into Saturday’s match-up in Evanston, Ill.
The Wildcats have lost two straight after winning three in a row to start February. But they were competitive in their last loss — a 71-66 defeat to No. 18 Indiana in Bloomington, Ind.
John Shurna had 29 points in the loss and averages 20.3 points on the season — tops in the Big Ten.
Shurna had 21 points in the Wildcats’ loss to the Gophers last month, but he shot just 8-for-21 from the field.
He also struggled to get his teammates involved, which has been a concern for Northwestern all season.
Minnesota, on the other hand, had all five starters score in double figures against the Wildcats. It will likely use a different starting lineup Saturday featuring Andre Hollins in place of Joe Coleman at guard.