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Broken hand to Grier may be just what Minnesota needs to hit stride late

It seemed like it should be at least a little bit panic-inducing.

Vincent Grier, Minnesota’s men’s basketball star, has an injury to his shooting hand.

The Gophers’ leader in points per game and steals per game last season, and the leading returnee in rebounds and assists is out for who knows how long.

And though the announcement of four to six weeks without Vincent Grier still might have seemed a little harrowing for Minnesota, in the end, it’s probably going to be of benefit to the Gophers.

With Grier in the team’s opener against North Dakota State, Minnesota had a crutch. Grier was on the court for all 40 minutes, and the Gophers had a player they could turn to to get themselves out of an offensive jam.

But that’s all that was really known. Who else was going to be able to step up and take the important shot or carry the team with a big scoring night?

Maybe Moe Hargrow would be able to, maybe Adam Boone. Maybe nobody.

And Grier was good at masking Minnesota’s flaws. The frontcourt didn’t have to score many points and didn’t have to hold their own on the glass with the preseason All-Big Ten guard doing a little bit of everything.

On Saturday, Minnesota played its first game without Grier. Some of the doubts left by his hand injury were erased in the Gophers’ 67-45 win over Tennessee-Chattanooga.

Boone and Hargrow can carry the scoring burden on a given night. Against the Moccasins, Boone scored 20, and Hargrow tied a career high with 24 points.

The frontcourt was shown to be a potential weakness. Sophomore center Spencer Tollackson attempted just two shots from the field and had three rebounds. Sophomore forward Dan Coleman suffered through a 1-6 night from the field and grabbed only two rebounds.

But it’s good that this was shown now. If Grier were in, maybe this lack of production wouldn’t have been so glaring. Now, coach Dan Monson knows he has five more weeks to remedy the frontcourt, and he can do it in game situations where Tollackson and Coleman are going to be counted on for more than they normally would.

On top of what he saw Saturday from those who were expected to be big contributors, Monson had to reach deeper on his bench against Chattanooga than he would have if Grier were available.

Freshman guard Jamal Abu-Shamala came off the bench and played 23 minutes to chip in with eight points. Freshman swingman Brandon Smith, in his first career start, had four rebounds in 16 minutes. Freshman forward Jonathan Williams played for 13 minutes.

With Grier in, none of these players would have logged the minutes they did. Now they are going to earn their Division I stripes a little earlier and be more experienced when the Big Ten season starts.

Grier’s injury as a blessing is because of the length of time he’s expected to be out. The Gophers might not be able to beat Maryland on Wednesday without Grier, but they might not have beat Maryland even with Grier.

The timetable on his broken hand means he’s going to be back by the Big Ten opener Jan. 7 against Northwestern. Though the nonconference schedule is tougher this year with a trip to Arizona State and home dates with Nevada-Las Vegas and Alabama-Birmingham, those games are still winnable without Grier.

More importantly, the Gophers might even be able to figure out a way to win tough games without him.

Add Grier back for the Big Ten season, and a team that looked thin against North Dakota State all of a sudden has some depth. And with a bona fide star in the mix, Minnesota is a team that should make it back to the NCAA Tournament.

” Matt Anderson welcomes comments at [email protected].

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