Play it again, Clem.
Gophers men’s basketball coach Clem Haskins finds his team reeling from Wednesday’s upset loss to Northwestern, and at the same time trying to rebound for Saturday’s game with Penn State — a virtual carbon copy of the Wildcats.
The No. 16 Gophers (9-2, 0-1 in the Big Ten) will watch the Lions (9-4, 1-1) come into Williams Arena with a strong inside force in senior center Calvin Booth, as well as a potent perimeter game.
Also making the trip will be Penn State senior Dan Earl, who like Northwestern’s Evan Eschmeyer is in his NCAA-granted sixth year of eligibility.
Earl took a medical redshirt in the 1996-97 season because of a degenerative disk problem in his lower back. He rehabilitated the injury enough to be able to start the 1997-98 season, but tore the ACL in his right leg in the team’s fifth game.
Earl has started all 13 games, averaging 12.2 points, but Lions coach Jerry Dunn said the senior is not all the way back from his injuries.
“He’s had some good games and he’s also had some games where he’s struggled,” Dunn said. “He’s not 100 percent; in fact, I think he’s only about 75 percent. It’s tough for him to go every night and play the way he’s capable of playing. He’s going to have some nights where he just doesn’t have it.”
The Gophers won two of three from Penn State last year, including a 79-72 win in last season’s NIT championship game.
Gone from that Penn State team is Pete Lisicky, the second-leading scorer in school history, and Jarrett Stephens, whose attempt to come back from a torn ACL was unsuccessful.
Stephens’ left knee was injured in the NIT semi-finals when he was tackled from behind on a breakaway against Georgia.
After some rigorous rehabilitation after his April 9 surgery, Stephens said he hoped the knee would be able to stand up to the constant pounding. But after playing 37 minutes in the first two games of the season, he chose to not to risk further injury.
“I’ve been roommates with Dan and Calvin for the last two years and it would be great to finish our careers together,” Stephens said. “But I have to look out for my health.”
Dunn said Stephens is beginning the process of applying for a medical redshirt, and expects one to be granted. Nevertheless, Dunn admits he hasn’t been very lucky in keeping his athletes healthy.
“We try to prepare for all situations and we obviously miss him, but we have to make up the difference in some other ways,” Dunn said. “Unfortunately we haven’t had the good fortune of having healthy people since my first year.”
Meanwhile, in Stephens’ absence, a new force at power forward has emerged in sophomore Gyasi Cline-Heard, who scored a career-high 23 points in the Lions’ 70-67 loss at home to No. 9 Purdue.
Heard is the son of former NBA player Garfield Heard, and is continuing to improve. But it’s the play of Earl and his back court partner Joe Crispin that has Gophers assistant coach Bill Brown worried.
“With Dan Earl running the point right now and with Joe Crispin, their guards haven’t missed a beat since last year,” Brown said.
Brown also said the improved inside presence of Booth will be another tough test for the Gophers and particularly Joel Przybilla.
After Eschmeyer pushed him around, Przybilla faces another of the conference’s top centers — A center who is especially tough on the defensive end, but holds his own offensively as well.
Haskins said the Gophers will use the same double-team philosophy on Booth that they used on Eschmeyer.
“No one stops a great center like Booth and Eschmeyer individually,” Haskins said, “but team defense will accomplish that.”