Balance a key against Spartans

by Aaron Kirscht

CHICAGO — The first game of the inaugural Big Ten Tournament served not only to kick off what could become an early March tradition, but also to debut the Sam and Quincy Show, with your hosts, Sam Jacobson and Quincy Lewis.
Jacobson and Lewis combined to score 48 of the Gophers’ 64 points in their tournament-opening eight-point win over Northwestern. After their 23 and 25 points, respectively, only Eric Harris managed to break into double figures with 11 points — most of which came on free throws in the closing minutes of the game.
Minnesota (14-14) did win the game, though, so Gophers coach Clem Haskins wasn’t about to argue with the results.
“If we had to play 25 more basketball games I’d be concerned,” Haskins said. “But at this time of the year, you’ve got to get that one or two guys to step up. Today, it was Quincy and Sam.”
Lewis scored the Gophers’ first nine points and finished the first half with 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting. He and Jacobson accounted for all but two of Minnesota’s 27-point total at the break.
Haskins said he wasn’t concerned with the unbalanced scoring, but perhaps he should be. Center Kyle Sanden and forwards Miles Tarver and Kevin Nathaniel all played significant minutes but came up empty. Guard Kevin Clark, playing with a sore hip, managed only five points in 31 minutes.
Ironically, it was Wildcats coach Kevin O’Neill who said earlier this week that his team had “but one game plan,” to get the ball to All-Big Ten center Evan Eschmeyer or freshman shooter Sean Wink. Eschmeyer got his share, scoring 23 points. But while Wink was mostly absent, Northwestern got contributions from a pair of unlikely players in guards Julian Bonner and Napoleon Harris.
Haskins, who has always preached balance and a revolving-door bench, wasn’t as fortunate. It’s only thanks to Jacobson and Lewis that the Gophers were able to put up enough points to outscore the Wildcats.
“Without their shooting ability and points, we would have been in trouble,” Haskins said.
If the two games earlier this season between these teams were any indication, neither Jacobson or Lewis was likely to be a factor. Jacobson missed the Jan. 7 game in Evanston, Ill., with a back injury, and turned in a so-so performance in the rematch at Williams Arena last week. Lewis scored a decent 14 points in the first game and only eight in the second.
Jacobson shrugged off his lackluster game against Northwestern to Senior Day hype, and Lewis — who scored his season high in points — said tournament time helps him step up his game.
“It’s nice to see (Lewis) play a good game,” Harris said. “When he gets on a roll like that, all you have to do is get him the ball because you know he’s not going to miss.”
In tournament play, Minnesota is used to riding the shoulders of a single player. During the Gophers’ run to the Elite Eight in 1990, Willie Burton played the role to perfection. Most recently, Bobby Jackson’s heroics were crucial to Minnesota’s Final Four run last year.
But if they have any hopes of making it back to the tournament that really counts next weekend, the Gophers as a whole will need to produce. Minnesota will take on Big Ten Player of the Year Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State, the co-regular season champion, today.
“We’re going to need them for the next three games, (Lewis) and Sam,” Harris said. “But not just those two. We need everybody to step their games up.”