A chance for résumé building in Puerto Rico

Josh Katzenstein

The timing of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off couldnâÄôt be better for the Minnesota menâÄôs basketball team. The Gophers open the eight-team tournament in San Juan against Western Kentucky, a team voted as the preseason favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference East Division. Then, if the Gophers can dismantle the Hilltoppers, they will face the winner of a matchup between Hostra and No. 8 North Carolina. A win over the Tar Heels could help carry Minnesota to an NCAA tournament berth, much like wins over Butler and Louisville the past two seasons. But a Gophers team that remains clouded with off-court drama and on-court inconsistencies cannot afford to look ahead just yet. âÄúBased on the way we played,âÄù coach Tubby Smith said, âÄúweâÄôd better be looking within and try to figure out what we can get better at, and weâÄôre capable of it.âÄù The Gophers first need to improve their defense. In their first two victories, they allowed Siena to shoot 51 percent from the floor after Wofford made 47.8 percent of its second-half attempts. The team also needs leaders to take control, and the tournament in San Juan presents the perfect opportunity. Although Smith said senior captains Blake Hoffarber and Al Nolen have begun to fill their leadership roles, they need to step up more. A dose of peer leadership could help prevent the off-court issues âÄî Devoe JosephâÄôs indefinite suspension and Colton Iverson and Rodney Williams being removed from the starting lineup for violating team rules âÄî from being a thorn in the GophersâÄô rear like last season. âÄúAl and Blake are both starting to realize that, âÄòHey, this is our last go-round fellas; donâÄôt screw this up,âÄôâÄù Smith said after MondayâÄôs win over Siena, adding the next declaration a bit more forcefully. âÄúWeâÄôve got a chance to be a pretty good team, so when they start disciplining each other, and when they start taking control and taking ownership, then you wonâÄôt see any of this happening. âÄúUntil they do that, until they step up and take some ownership and lead the right way, IâÄôll be the bad guy. IâÄôll be a bad, bad guy.âÄù While Smith is clearly frustrated with the drama, he said itâÄôs better to happen now than down the road and hopes he can grab the playersâÄô attention. A benefit of this problem, though, is that Smith had a chance to see junior forward Trevor Mbakwe and freshman guard Austin Hollins thrive in starting roles against Siena. Mbakwe posted his second double-double of the season with 10 points and 11 rebounds while Hollins scored 12 points, including seven during an 11-0 run in the second half. JosephâÄôs absence also means Hoffarber must be more involved with setting up the offense. He played a bit at point guard after Nolen picked up his second foul in the first half. âÄúI think Blake played really good at the point,âÄù Williams said Monday after Hoffarber posted a team-high seven assists, including a beautiful alley-oop pass to him on the baseline. âÄúHe actually surprised me. I didnâÄôt think he was going to be that poised at the point guard.âÄù In San Juan, the Gophers will start at 6:30 p.m. (CDT) Thursday against a tough Hilltoppers team averaging 90.5 points per game in wins over St. JosephâÄôs and Alabama A&M. A trio of senior forwards âÄî Sergio Kerusch, Juan Pattillo and Steffphon Pettigrew âÄî are all averaging at least 18 points per game. Minnesota will likely try to start by going inside, something they struggled to do Monday. Mbakwe admitted some of the players were too busy thinking about TuesdayâÄôs flight. âÄú[This tournament] was one of the things we were looking forward to to start the season,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄúItâÄôs going to be a good test for us. WeâÄôre going to be on a neutral site, and weâÄôre not going to have the crowd, so I think were going to have to rally around each other to win those games, and I think itâÄôs going to be a great test for us.âÄù The game will be broadcast on ESPN3.com. The four teams on the other side of the bracket are Davidson, West Virginia, Vanderbilt and Nebraska.