Nolen back after season shortened by ineligibility

by Josh Katzenstein

The 2010-11 Minnesota menâÄôs basketball season hasnâÄôt even started, but point guard Al Nolen has something to prove.

The senior captain missed the final 17 games last season due to academic ineligibility, and although guard Devoe Joseph stepped up in his absence and averaged 14.0 points per game in the Big Ten tournament, Nolen is ready to remind people why heâÄôs been the starting point guard since his sophomore season.

âÄúIâÄôm pretty sure a lot of people forgot about me, but thatâÄôs fine,âÄù Nolen said. âÄúOnce we get back out here, I think theyâÄôll be quickly reminded.âÄù

Sure, TuesdayâÄôs exhibition game against Northeastern State at 7 p.m. doesnâÄôt count, but for Nolen, itâÄôs the first time he will play a competitive contest at Williams Arena since posting 11 points, seven steals, five rebounds and four steals in a Jan. 9 win over Ohio State.

But my how the forgotten have fallen. Nolen averaged 2.4 steals per game last season and 1.9 in each of his first two years, but was not listed in either ESPNâÄôs top 20 or Sports IllustratedâÄôs top 16 defenders in the nation.

âÄúIâÄôm sure a lot of nonconference teams weâÄôre going to play might not know who I am,âÄù Nolen said, âÄúbut I donâÄôt think IâÄôm going to be able to surprise anybody in the Big Ten.âÄù

Now that heâÄôs back, Nolen said heâÄôs been working on his shooting âÄî heâÄôs never shot better than 37 percent from the field âÄî because he expects to find open looks with opposing defenses focusing on the GophersâÄô post players, primarily juniors Ralph Sampson and Colton Iverson.

But Nolen had to work on things besides basketball before his return. Last season, Smith showed Nolen little pity for his academic struggles. Nolen is back on track to earn his degree and Smith awarded him by naming him as a captain.

âÄúHe had a lot of things going on in his life the first part of the season that he really wasnâÄôt sharing with a lot of people, and by the time you get behind, itâÄôs hard to catch up,âÄù Smith said. âÄúBut I think he has matured a lot. I’ve seen, certainly, an improvement in his attitude in the classroom. HeâÄôs getting to class and doing the things he needs to get done.âÄù

Smith added that he wonâÄôt add any team rules to prevent other players from faltering like Nolen.

âÄúYouâÄôve got one of two choicesâĦ either you go to class or you donâÄôt,âÄù Smith said. âÄúI donâÄôt change policy for one guy.âÄù

With Nolen back, the Gophers have numerous options with how to set their starting lineup.

Smith said Monday that Nolen and fellow senior captain Blake Hoffarber will start as the two guards Tuesday, with sophomore Rodney Williams playing small forward. Sampson and Iverson will play the post to round out the starting five.

Smith said Monday that junior forward Trevor Mbakwe (who missed last season with a since-dropped felony assault charge) and freshmen Maurice Walker (forward), Chip Armelin (guard) and Austin Hollins (guard) have looked particularly impressive in practice. MbakweâÄôs athleticism could help him crack the starting lineup at power forward.

Joseph will likely get his share of starts this season, considering SmithâÄôs tendency to mix up the rotation. Nolen said he expects the Gophers to at some point run a Villanova-style three-guard offense to take advantage of himself, Hoffarber, Joseph and Hollins.

But for now, itâÄôs NolenâÄôs time to shine. ItâÄôs his senior season, and after missing the final 17 games last season, heâÄôs ready to prove that with him the Gophers can go further than a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament this season.

âÄúI thought a couple times they couldâÄôve really used me to do a couple things out there, and it was real hard to sit back and watch them,âÄù Nolen said. âÄúBut IâÄôm definitely excited to be back, and IâÄôm very hungry and ready to go.âÄù