Last week the Minnesota menâÄôs basketball team was in a state of turmoil.
Minnesota had lost three of four games after falling to No. 2 Ohio State on Sunday, Jan. 9. The next day, Trevor Mbakwe was arrested for violating a harassment restraining order by sending his ex-girlfriend a Facebook message. Also that day, Devoe Joseph started classes at the University of Oregon, completing his transfer and leaving the GophersâÄô bench depleted.
Throw in a Thursday game against then-No. 8 Purdue and last week could have been disastrous for a Minnesota team hoping to make a third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance and contend for a Big Ten title.
Then things began to turn around. Mbakwe was released on bail just hours after his arrest and the University chose not to suspend him (although heâÄôs come off the bench in the games since).
And that potentially crippling game against the Boilermakers became a statement victory for the Gophers, with senior guard Blake HoffarberâÄôs 26 points and a great second-half defensive effort carrying the team to a much-needed victory. SundayâÄôs 69-59 win over Iowa only continued to lift the GophersâÄô spirits and brought them back to .500 in conference play (14-4 overall, 3-3 Big Ten).
But the last two wins did more than bring the Gophers back into contention in the Big Ten. They proved that the GophersâÄô need their two senior guards âÄî Hoffarber and Al Nolen âÄî to carry the load if this team hopes to play deep into March.
âÄúWhen me and Blake play well together I think the team really gets going,âÄù Nolen said. âÄúWhen weâÄôre on the same page I think it really helps the other guys get on the same page.âÄù
That wasnâÄôt the case in the GophersâÄô three Big Ten losses. Against Wisconsin on Dec. 28, Nolen missed all six of his shots from the field, and he was just 1-for-4 against then-No. 20 Michigan State. Against the Buckeyes last Sunday, Hoffarber scored just seven points and committed three turnovers.
The turnaround began with HoffarberâÄôs 26-point effort against Purdue, and he played great defensively against Iowa on Sunday, coming up with three steals and a block to negate a 2-for-10 shooting performance.
In addition, Nolen has managed the last two games to near perfection. Against the Boilermakers, Nolen had just one turnover in 39 minutes, and he had 13 points, eight rebounds and three steals in another one-turnover performance against Iowa.
âÄúYou expect that your veteran, experienced players will lead by example and lead by their play,âÄù Smith said.
Hoffarber and Nolen need to play well every night now that Joseph, who averaged 11.3 points in eight games, is gone.
âÄúIâÄôve been playing a lot of minutes, but I like that,âÄù said Hoffarber, who averaged a team-high 33.7 minutes per game before the Iowa tilt. âÄúI feel like I get in the flow of the game.âÄù
Hoffarber and Nolen both dealt with injuries at the beginning of the season, but neither has looked hobbled of late, even though Nolen âÄî who sat five games âÄî admits his foot still isnâÄôt 100 percent.
All season Smith has said the GophersâÄô frontcourt is their biggest strength. Looking simply at Mbakwe âÄî the Big TenâÄôs leader in rebounding and field goal percentage âÄî would make that true, but Ralph Sampson, Rodney Williams and Colton Iverson all need to be more consistent. Losing freshman Mo Walker to a knee injury for the rest of the season also puts more pressure on Sampson and Iverson.
Against Iowa, Sampson filled the box score by contributing 11 points, seven blocks, six rebounds and four assists. If he can play at that level and Williams focuses on creating inside shots (heâÄôs 2-for-23 from behind the arc), the Gophers should be able to continue to climb back into the Big Ten title hunt.
âÄúWeâÄôre back in the race,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄúWeâÄôre just hoping some other teams have some losses, and weâÄôll be able to jump back in.âÄù