No. 15 Gophers look to recover after reality check

Josh Katzenstein

The problem: Virginia gave the No. 15 Minnesota menâÄôs basketball team a harsh dose of reality, beating the Gophers, 87-79, while exploiting glaring defensive problems that exist when the Gophers are without injured senior guard Al Nolen.

A temporary solution: A blowout victory in which Minnesota scores enough points to forget NolenâÄôs absence and allows less than 70 points, their current average thatâÄôs last in the Big Ten.

The Gophers (6-1) play a Cornell team (2-5) that in no way resembles last seasonâÄôs Sweet 16 team and will travel away from the northeast corner of the U.S. for the first time this season for SaturdayâÄôs 7 p.m. game at Williams Arena.

Virginia shot 76.9 percent from three-point range Monday. Rest assured, the team will use the four days in between to tighten a defense that looked more porous than most sponges.

âÄúIt was probably as pathetic an effort defensively that weâÄôve had in a long time,âÄù said coach Tubby Smith, who has emphasized defense since coming to Minnesota in 2007. âÄúWe had the chances. We just couldnâÄôt get the stops.âÄù

Nolen ranks second in the Big Ten with 2.83 steals per game, which hardly accounts for the number of balls he tips and poor passes he forces others to make. On Monday, point guards Maverick Ahanmisi and Devoe Joseph (in his first game of the season) didnâÄôt have a steal between them.

âÄúHe is one of the best defenders in the country,âÄù fellow senior captain Blake Hoffarber said of Nolen. âÄúHopefully he can get back soon, but anytime youâÄôre missing your point guard itâÄôs going to be tough on the team.âÄù

Nolen was averaging 4.2 assists in 31.8 minutes per game before going down with a right foot injury that Smith said âÄúmight be a stress fracture.âÄù Ahanmisi and Joseph only had five assists in 40 total minutes. The Gophers missed JosephâÄôs scoring ability while he was suspended, but he appeared far too eager to shoot Monday, going just 5-of-12 for the game in scoring 16 points.

When announcing NolenâÄôs injury Saturday, Smith said Hoffarber and the GophersâÄô post players would have to carry the load. Hoffarber (19 points Monday) and junior forward Trevor Mbakwe (18 points Monday) answered the call, but junior centers Ralph Sampson and Colton Iverson hardly helped the cause.

Sampson, in foul trouble much of the game Monday, scored just two points and hasnâÄôt cracked double figures since the Gophers beat North Carolina Nov. 19. Iverson, his backup, scored just five points in 24 minutes Monday and has yet to control the paint on the offensive end this season.

The Gophers are also shooting 63.7 percent from the free-throw line, worst in the Big Ten.

Still, Minnesota draws a fortunate opponent and should use SaturdayâÄôs game âÄî and the remainder of the nonconference schedule âÄî to improve its problems.

The Big Red lost eight seniors from last yearâÄôs team and are just 1-4 on the road in coach Bill CourtneyâÄôs first season.

But many expected the Gophers to breeze through the Cavaliers on Monday, who entered the game with a 3-3 record. That game served as an early wake-up call, and Smith will likely let the team know that Cornell is certainly capable of an upset.

âÄúWeâÄôve got to get this group to understand that you have to overachieve and play with the right type of attitude every time out,âÄù Smith said.