An illustrious career, to be continued

In his past, Blake Hoffarber has an ESPY and gobs of 3s; in his future, he hopes there is professional basketball.

Josh Katzenstein

HeâÄôs not fast enough. HeâÄôs not strong enough. HeâÄôs nothing but a shooter. He wonâÄôt make it at a big-time Division I basketball program.

The critics have yet to stop Blake Hoffarber.

âÄúI think IâÄôve done a good job,âÄù the GophersâÄô senior co-captain said. âÄúBut IâÄôm not content with good.

âÄúIâÄôve still got a lot of improvement to prove those other people wrong, but IâÄôm working on it.âÄù

That drive gave those close to Hoffarber confidence that the 6-foot-4 guard would be successful with the Gophers, even before he made it to college.

âÄúBefore he got here I told people he would be the best shooter to leave here,âÄù said senior co-captain Al Nolen, who played with Hoffarber in AAU growing up.

His prediction came true.

Regardless of how Minnesota finishes in the Big Ten tournament, which begins Thursday in Indianapolis, HoffarberâÄôs quick left-handed release resulted in 276 made 3-pointers, the most in team history by 85.

He also holds the record for most games played (131), many of which he played hurt. He had surgery after his junior season to repair a bilateral sports hernia. Ken Novak, Jr., his uncle and coach at Hopkins High School, said heâÄôs had a torn bursa sac in one of his elbows and âÄî as recently as this season âÄî one of his knees. Novak added âÄúseveral high ankle sprainsâÄù and consistent plantar fasciitis to the mix.

âÄúHeâÄôs having trouble walking,âÄù Novak said. âÄúHeâÄôs a tough kid.âÄù

Hoffarber is 18th all-time in scoring at Minnesota with the possibility of moving up a few spots if the Gophers make a run in the conference tournament, NIT or NCAA tournament.

Followers of Minnesota might remember Hoffarber for a disappointing end to a hopeful senior season. Others could recall his two seemingly mythical shots, one of which won him an ESPY, the other an ESPY nomination.

His teammates and coaches will remember the work he put in to silence the doubters.

âÄúHeâÄôs just worked hard to prove everybody wrong,âÄù junior Trevor Mbakwe said. âÄúHe never settled.âÄù

Constant adjustments

At the start of HoffarberâÄôs sophomore season, the NCAA moved the 3-point line back a foot. He shot a career-low 34.1 percent from beyond the arc that year.

With another offseason to adjust, Hoffarber came back his junior season hitting treys at a 46.7 percent clip, best in the Big Ten.

Since that difficult sophomore year, Hoffarber has steadily increased his averages in points and assists.

But his senior season has put the most strain on the finance major, who will graduate this May and already has a job offer from Cargill âÄî assuming he finishes his final seven credits this semester.

Despite how he plays it off, the pressure of losing the teamâÄôs starting point guard âÄî Nolen broke his foot on Jan. 22 âÄî has gotten to Hoffarber. A shooting guard by nature, Hoffarber took over point guard duties, and although he played point guard during a Class 4A state championship as a high school sophomore, the change was drastic.

âÄúI know itâÄôs taking a toll on him trying to play out of position,âÄù Nolen said. âÄúPeople donâÄôt understand that even if he wanted to go back and just be a shooter itâÄôs affecting him already.âÄù

The Gophers are 2-9 without Nolen and lost nine of their last 10 games to finish the regular season, including the last two games with freshman Maverick Ahanmisi starting at point guard. During the last 11 games, Hoffarber is shooting just 37.5 percent compared with 44.2 percent for his career.

To cope with the games lost and the losses of players to injury (Nolen and Mo Walker) and transfer (Devoe Joseph), Hoffarber doesnâÄôt punch a wall or pillow âÄî nor does he weep.

âÄúI do a lot of thinking, especially when I go to bed at night,âÄù he said. âÄúYou always wish you couldâÄôve had a full squad. You wish everything had gone right, but I think everyone in the world would wish everything would go right. ItâÄôs how you pick yourself up when things donâÄôt go down.âÄù

Adjusting to losing

Despite scoring 31 points, Hoffarber lost his final high school basketball game. Hopkins failed to make the state tournament and couldnâÄôt defend its back-to-back titles.

âÄúI think that was tougher,âÄù Novak said. âÄúWe hadnâÄôt lost too much.âÄù

The Royals won state championships during HoffarberâÄôs sophomore and junior seasons. He missed the end of his freshman season due to mononucleosis.

Like high school, this isnâÄôt how Hoffarber wanted to end his career with the Gophers.

âÄúHeâÄôs always won. Times had gone well,âÄù Novak said, adding that when such streaks happen, âÄúwinning doesnâÄôt mean quite as much. Losing just gets harder.âÄù

Gophers coach Tubby Smith isnâÄôt accustomed to losing either. His teams have won 20 games in each of the past 17 seasons, dating back to his years at Tulsa. Smith and HoffarberâÄôs frustration became apparent during a timeout against Northwestern last week, with the two clearly yelling at each other.

After Minnesota gave up a double-digit lead and lost to the Wildcats, Hoffarber said, âÄúI donâÄôt think IâÄôve ever gone through a losing streak like this.âÄù

He hasnâÄôt.

âÄúAnd I donâÄôt think coach has either.âÄù

He hasnâÄôt.

âÄúAnytime youâÄôre losing like this I think people are just trying to fire other people up, and your emotions come out,âÄù Hoffarber said.

Smith has questioned the seniorâÄôs shot selection multiple times in postgame interviews. Hoffarber said he doesnâÄôt listen to the media, but classmates mention it to him.

He just tries his best to respond on the court.

âÄúIt lights a fire under my belt,âÄù he said. âÄúI think heâÄôs just doing it to just get us motivated. Obviously we havenâÄôt been playing too well, and youâÄôve got to try to do different things.âÄù

The best moments

People still come up to Hoffarber and ask him about the shot.

Remember? The one he swished from his backside as a sophomore in high school that sent a state tournament game to double-overtime and helped Hopkins win the title.

âÄúIt seems like every day someone will come up or bring it up,âÄù he said before this season. âÄúPeople always think itâÄôs a fun thing to talk about.âÄù

His current head coach doesnâÄôt mind talking about another shot, the one that earned him a second ESPY nomination âÄî although not a win like with the butt shot âÄî in the 2008 Big Ten tournament.

Hoffarber took a near-70-foot long in-bounds pass from Travis Busch in a second-round game. The Gophers trailed by 1 with 1.5 seconds left.

Catch, turn and shoot.

âÄúThatâÄôs as good of a winning shot as IâÄôve ever had a player make, to be honest with you,âÄù Smith said of HoffarberâÄôs game-winner. âÄúIâÄôve had guys make winning shots, but in that type of environment, in that circumstance, him being a freshman; it was just amazing.

âÄúYou just donâÄôt find that, but heâÄôs got that ultimate confidence.âÄù

Despite the fame and glory of that shot, HoffarberâÄôs favorite moment at Minnesota was making the NCAA tournament as a sophomore. He wanted to experience the hype and energy of March Madness.

And although the Gophers ended up losing in the first round in 2009 and 2010, he was confident when he filled out the brackets âÄî without betting, of course.

âÄúJust seeing our name in that bracket and being able to move us throughout the whole tournament, itâÄôs fun,âÄù he said. âÄúIf youâÄôre filling it out and you have yourself lose, thereâÄôs something wrong with that.âÄù

WhatâÄôs next

After he graduates, Hoffarber wants to play basketball. He doesnâÄôt know where or for how long, but of that he is certain.

âÄúWhether itâÄôs two years or 10 years,âÄù he said, âÄúI just want to see how far it can take me.âÄù

Most of his teammates and coaches see a pro career at some level as a certain possibility.

âÄúI canâÄôt imagine anybody not wanting to play with him,âÄù Novak said. âÄúI think he wants to make other people better.âÄù

Therein lies his second career. Maybe.

After testing the pros, Hoffarber plans to put that business degree to use, although heâÄôs not rejecting the possibility of coaching.

His grandfather, Ken Novak, Sr., coached basketball for more than 50 years, and his uncle isnâÄôt too shabby either. Hoffarber admitted that he could be looking toward business now because of the focus heâÄôs been giving to classes.

âÄúIâÄôve never been away from basketball,âÄù he said. âÄúIt might be tough hanging it up.âÄù

Hoffarber said he never looked back on his decision to join the Gophers, even though he knew exactly where his second choice of Notre Dame was ranked last week. The Irish are now No. 4 in the nation.

And as he looks toward the final chapter of his career at Minnesota, he doesnâÄôt want people to remember him for his latest run of losing, one that heâÄôs hoping to turn around starting Thursday.

âÄúI just want them to think of me as a winner and doing everything I can to help the team win,âÄù he said. âÄúI just want them to remember that IâÄôm always a positive kid, a good leader and just a winner.âÄù