Early games expose U’s strengths, weaknesses

by Tim Klobuchar

The Big Ten schedule, which began with Friday’s loss to Purdue, will ultimately determine whether the Gophers men’s basketball team’s season is successful. Minnesota’s non-conference action over winter break is more than a footnote, however.
A few of the games, losses to Nebraska and Cincinnati, might hurt the Gophers’ chances of an NCAA tournament berth. A few others served as confidence-boosters and chances for coach Clem Haskins to find the rotation he will use during the conference season. Here’s a quick review of the prologue to the Gophers’ near-upset over the No. 5 Boilermakers.
Joining the .500 club
For a team coming off a Final Four season, a .500 record is an apt description of bottom, and Minnesota hit it with losses to Nebraska and Cincinnati.
The Gophers learned they would have trouble with teams bigger than themselves, something they rarely had to worry about last year when they had the most physical frontcourt in the Big Ten. Minnesota shot just 25 free throws in the two defeats, compared to 69 for its opponents.
“They’re not the same team (as last year),” Nebraska coach Danny Nee said after his team’s 70-66 win at Williams Arena on Dec. 13.
Senior swingman Sam Jacobson had his worst game of the season against the Cornhuskers, scoring just six points on five shots. Coach Clem Haskins challenged him after the game.
“I’ve been double- and triple-teamed, and I still put up numbers,” he said. “He’s a big boy now. He’s got to step up.”
Shark bitten
The Gophers bounced back Dec. 20 at home against Fresno State, arguably the most talented team Minnesota has faced but also the most underachieving.
Minnesota won 92-72, the first time this season it scored more than 71 points in a game. It was the fifth straight loss for the Jerry Tarkanian-led Bulldogs, a consensus top-20 team in preseason polls. Junior college transfer Kevin Clark broke out of a personal slump, scoring a career-high 21 points.
Plain or frosted?
The Barn temporarily became a cupcake factory, as two marginal Division I teams, Sacramento State and Florida Atlantic, visited Williams Arena and were devoured 100-56 and 95-45, respectively.
They were the last two games the Gophers played before Purdue, and they highlighted a few trends, including …
Jacobson returns to form
He scored a season-high 28 against the Boilermakers, but had been building toward that with four consecutive 20-plus-points performances since the Nebraska debacle. Jacobson shot just 34 percent in his first seven games, but has improved to 52 percent in his last five.
“It was just a feel,” Jacobson said. “You get your rhythm back, get comfortable with your shot and know what shot to take. Lately, I’ve been trying to drive to the hole more to get easier baskets.”
Personnel moves
Haskins has decided to stick with starting the 6-6 Jacobson at off-guard, 6-7 Quincy Lewis at small forward, 6-8 Miles Tarver at power forward and 6-11 freshman Kyle Sanden at center to give the Gophers their tallest possible lineup.
Clark has been regaining the playing time he lost during his slump, and 6-5 freshman Kevin Nathaniel, from the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, has emerged as an important sub. He’s played double-figure minutes in the last five games, taking more playing time away from sophomore Russ Archambault.