by Todd Zolecki

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Iker Iturbe can’t see his friends in Minnesota, so the Clemson men’s basketball player has made it so his friends can see him.
Ever since the NCAA tournament brackets were announced Mar. 9, and the Gophers and Clemson were placed in the Midwest Regional, the possibility of a Tigers-Gophers matchup in the Sweet Sixteen became a possibility. Now, with both teams winning their first two games, it’s reality. The two play Thursday in San Antonio.
That’s perfect for Iturbe, who has Minnesota connections, but can’t get back to visit.
A native of Spain, he lived in Fridley, Minn., for two years and graduated from Totino Grace High School. There he starred on the boys basketball team, averaging 23.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game his senior year. Those numbers made the 6-foot-7 forward a hot commodity.
Next to Gophers junior Sam Jacobson, Iturbe was the most sought after player in Minnesota. He decided on Clemson over the Gophers.
“It was a matter of who wanted me more,” he said.
The two teams have met twice before, but Iturbe, for different reasons, hasn’t been able to put out a full effort.
When the Gophers played in Clemson, S.C., in 1995, Iturbe didn’t play because he had a blood clot in his shoulder. One of his ribs caused the clot, so Iturbe had it removed. He missed his entire sophomore season and had to redshirt.
Earlier this season the two teams met at the San Juan Shootout. The Gophers won, 75-65, winning the tournament championship. Iturbe, however, played only 17 minutes because of a bad ankle and sore back.
This time Iturbe is healthy and looks forward to his first “real” game against Minnesota.
“It’s more special for me than anyone else on the team,” he said. “I went to their games when I was there.”
The Spaniard proved himself a worthy signee for Clemson coach Rick Barnes. Iturbe started 20 games his freshman year, averaging 6.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. After sitting out last year year, he came back this season to average 5.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.
Iturbe is a versatile player. With 235 pounds of weight to throw around, he has played center but has good enough hands to bring the ball up the court.
“If there’s a lot of full court pressure, he can help us out,” Tigers point guard Terrell McIntyre said. “He’s a big target. He’s good for us, and we understand that.”
Iturbe doesn’t score much, but when he does, it’s usually against big opponents. In the four games in which he scored double figures this season, he did it against Kentucky, South Carolina, Duke and Virginia — all NCAA tournament teams.
He picked up his play Friday against Miami of Ohio. He scored nine points, grabbed seven rebounds and had three assists. Against Tulsa on Sunday, he had eight points, 10 rebounds and three steals.
Iturbe keeps in contact with friends in Minnesota and said he’d like to return this summer. But he added that his responsiblities with the team and the great distance between Minnesota and South Carolina make it difficult.
“I write them on e-mail all the time,” he said. “I haven’t seen anybody in a long time. I wish I could get there. I would love to go back.”
But for now he’s just content to play the Gophers. And so are his teammates
“We do feel we didn’t play our best basketball down in Puerto Rico,” Clemson guard Merl Code said.