Suddenly thin at guard, exhibition becomes key

C.J. Spang

This Saturday’s exhibition game against Southwest Minnesota State is more than just a chance for Minnesota’s men’s basketball team to beat up on a Division II opponent.

With guards Ryan Saunders and Rico Tucker out with an injury and academic reasons respectively, the Gophers’ first exhibition game gives them a chance to evaluate their freshmen to help decide who will redshirt and who will need to play in the upcoming season.

Tip-off for the exhibition is 3 p.m. at Williams Arena.

Starting this season, the NCAA changed a rule regarding redshirt athletes that allows freshmen to play in the exhibition games without losing a year of eligibility.

“It couldn’t have came at a better time for our program,” coach Dan Monson said. “We need these two weeks to reevaluate that situation to see who needs to redshirt and who doesn’t.”

On Tuesday, Monson listed three freshmen as redshirt options: Kevin Payton, Damian Johnson and Jamal Abu-Shamala.

With Saunders and Tucker out, that leaves only Vincent Grier, Maurice Hargrow, Adam Boone and Brandon Smith available at guard.

Already billed as the top freshman on Minnesota’s roster before Saunders and Tucker went out, Smith will now have the added pressure of being the primary backup to Grier, Hargrow and Boone.

When asked about the added pressure, Smith said it wouldn’t bother him.

“No, just sometimes my adrenaline gets too high getting ready to play,” he said. “But I don’t feel too much pressure. I mean, pressure comes and pressure goes so I just take it as another game.”

But Saturday’s game won’t be just another game for the hometown prep star.

“I’ve been waiting for this day since I can remember; since the first day I signed,” Smith said. “Being on this court is special to me, especially in front of your hometown, so I’m really looking forward to it.”

Not only will he be playing for his hometown, but also for his friends and family.

“I don’t know how I’m gonna fit ’em all in the gym,” Smith said. “But we’re gonna try and work out something.”

But the game will be different for Smith’s teammates.

Last season, the Gophers were predicted to finish 10th in the Big Ten.

They went on to finish fourth and earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

This season is similar, as Minnesota is predicted to finish eighth in the Big Ten, and once again, the Gophers will use that as motivation.

“Yeah it’s definitely motivation,” Coleman said. “Proving everyone wrong like we did last year.”