Guard troubles plague Minnesota

Michael Dougherty

Where, oh where, have the shooting guards gone?
With perimeter scoring almost nonexistent, Minnesota’s losses have been piling up.
After starting the season 8-2 in nonconference play, the current three-game losing streak has dropped the team to 10-6, 2-4 in the Big Ten.
Not surprisingly, Minnesota’s slide in the standings coincides with a drop in points from starting guards Terrance Simmons and Kevin Burleson.
The duo was averaging 24 points per game (13.6 for Simmons and 10.4 for Burleson) and shot 47 percent from the field in nonconference games.
But as the tougher Big Ten teams have rolled in, Simmons’ field-goal percentage has dropped 21 points to 30 percent, and his scoring is down to 8 ppg.
Burleson has seen his numbers drop in conference play as well. His scoring is down to 7.5 ppg, while his shooting is at 29 percent.
Simmons said the drop in production from the two has been because of the increased level of play in the Big Ten and the emergence of center Joel Przybilla as an offensive weapon.
“Our focal point is Joel, and we always try to get the ball into him,” Simmons said. “At the very beginning of the season, we would get the ball into him, but when we had the shots, we would take them. Now, we’ll catch the ball and hesitate instead of taking that first shot when it’s there.
“If you’re not prepared to take the shot when you catch the ball, you’re not going to make it. Now, when Joel throws it back out to us, we’re not even ready to shoot. We’re second-guessing ourselves.”
First-year coach Dan Monson attributes some of the struggles to better-informed opposition.
“I think part of it is we’re having to play through other people’s preparation right now,” he said. “Early in the year, there was that surprise element of who we were, and that’s gone now.
“There’s very good coaching in this league, and people are taking away strengths right now, and with an inexperienced club and inexperienced players, one thing we’re not doing is countering very well.”
He said the inexperience that worried so many before the season is affecting them now. Monson credited the tough and physical play of the conference, saying the Big Ten is designed to make it harder to get an open shot away.
But what about the open looks that aren’t going in?
Simmons said he and Burleson stay late after every practice and shoot countless balls. It’s just a matter of getting comfortable.
“We’ve got a young team here. Kevin Burleson is a freshman,” Simmons said. “Mitch Ohnstad is in his second year playing here, and it’s really just like my first year playing here, and people seem to forget that. It’s a tough, but you’ve got to adjust to it. Coach has just told us that we’ve got to have guts enough to take the shot.”
Guard play against Minnesota’s next opponent, Penn State, will be particularly crucial. The Lions’ Joe Crispin was named Big Ten player of the week on Monday, thanks to back-to-back 31-point games against Illinois and Wisconsin.
Monson said losing tends to bring things to a boil, and it’s no different right now. It’s simple. He needs his guards to step up and play improved ball on both ends of the court.
“I think everybody’s got a solution when there’s problems, but the solution is we need to get back to playing well whether the ball is in Joel’s hands or in the guards’ hands,” he said.
Griffin is gone
Illinois coach Lon Kruger said forward Marcus Griffin had surgery Monday morning to repair torn cartilage in his left knee. The injury was sustained during practice Friday afternoon. Kruger said Griffin will be lost for three to six weeks.
Averaging 6.1 rebounds per game, Griffin was the Illini’s leading rebounder and was second in scoring (12.7 ppg) behind guard Cory Bradford.
With Griffin out and Penn State coming to town Saturday, Kruger played freshman Brian Cook to fill in for Griffin. Cook, who had averaged only 1.8 ppg, stepped it up with a career-high 20 points to lead Illinois to a 87-76 win.
ùMonson said junior co-captain Kyle Sanden has a chance of playing against Penn State. He said Sanden is enrolled in classes and has turned in all of his requirements to make up an incomplete he received last semester.
Sanden has always been eligible under NCAA guidelines but was not in compliance with Big Ten rules.
“It seems like everything’s in order, but until it goes through all the red tape, he won’t play,” Monson said. “I’m saying it’s 50-50 whether it happens before Penn State or not. There’s a possibility.”

Michael Dougherty covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]