Seniors get theirs at last

Not far-removed from their days on the pine, three seniors are finding their niches.

by Bob Wothe

Dan Monson loves this year’s Minnesota’s men’s basketball team so much that he even relished getting up early Monday for a 6 a.m. workout.

“I told them that the best thing about working out this morning was that I got to see them again,” Monson said Monday. “I’ve had more fun with this team than my first five years combined.”

He said he loves the way junior college transfers Vincent Grier and J’son Stamper never take a play off.

He also loves the way freshmen Dan Coleman, Rico Tucker and Spencer Tollackson bring an element of fearlessness and confidence into the game.

But, most of all, he loves his seniors.

Aaron Robinson, Brent Lawson and Jeff Hagen, the team’s only three active seniors, have 13 years of experience with Monson between them.

The trio plugs on in its surprising senior campaigns at 7 p.m. today against Indiana (9-7, 4-1 Big Ten) at Williams Arena.

On a team with 10 freshmen, the leadership and somewhat surprising play they’ve provided has been instrumental in the squad’s 13-5 start, including 3-2 in the Big Ten.

“Those three guys have been in the tough environments before,” Monson said. “They bring it every single day, and they’re all so valuable in teaching the young guys.”

Even so, if you had told any one of them four years ago that they would be starting this year, you likely would have received an incredulous laugh in response.

Of the three, Robinson was the only player to immediately receive a scholarship from Minnesota. Yet, even he averaged just 14 minutes per game last season and had a career scoring average of 1.8 points per game.

This year, with more than half the season gone, the 5-foot-10-inch point guard is playing more than 30 minutes per game, averaging 8.4 points and connecting on 43.2 percent of his three-point attempts – a mark bested only by Lawson’s 45 percent clip.

But while Robinson has endured criticism about his size, Lawson’s skill has been questioned just as much.

A 6-foot-4-inch guard from Maple Grove, Minn., who was not recruited by Minnesota and instead attended St. Francis (Pa.) as a freshman, Lawson walked on to the Gophers squad as a sophomore and had averaged just 1.4 points per game in his Minnesota career.

But he earned his status as the team’s only captain this year through hard work and a high basketball IQ – two things evidenced by his 39 steals, which rank third in the Big Ten.

“Brent is so valuable defensively in covering up mistakes and helping in the post,” Monson said.

Lawson was expected to do that; what Monson said he did not anticipate was Lawson’s hot shooting so far.

His 45 percent three-point shooting also ranks third in the conference, but he said he still has the same attitude he did when he walked on almost four years ago.

“As the captain, it’s my job to provide what the team needs, and it’s my job to knock down the open three when I get it,” Lawson said. “It’s not about stats for me. I’m shooting OK, but I can get better.”

Without Hagen, though, Lawson might never get those open shots.

Despite being recruited by several programs while at Hopkins High School in Hopkins, Minn., Hagen chose to walk on at Minnesota.

Now in his fifth year with the Gophers, Hagen is the “senior” senior on the team.

But despite his 7-foot frame, Hagen was primarily used as a backup even last year, averaging only 16 minutes a game.

As with all the seniors, a year has made a world of difference for Hagen. He currently ranks second on the team, averaging 11.8 points per game in Big Ten play.

And that’s with a laundry list of ailments that would sideline a lesser man.

First, Hagen played just 14 minutes Jan. 12 against Purdue because of a concussion sustained from sliding off the elevated floor at Williams Arena trying to save a loose ball. Then, he battled headaches before playing 33 minutes at Iowa on Jan. 16. Next, he played just eight minutes Wednesday versus Ohio State because of a high knee sprain suffered in a pileup going after another loose ball. Finally, he came off the bench for 26 minutes, scored 16 points and grabbed six rebounds Saturday against Michigan State at Williams Arena – and sprained his left ankle in the process.

“I’d hate to see what he’d do against us if he were healthy again,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said after the game. “He might be one of the more improved, if not the most, in the Big Ten.

“That kid is a big key to their success – whether he can come back will determine some of it.”

Monson said Monday that while Hagen remains day-to-day as far as his availability goes, it’s possible he would play tonight and then sit Saturday when Minnesota travels to take on No. 1 Illinois.

But, as Hagen said after the Michigan State game, he hates to watch.

Lawson said he’d be rather surprised if Hagen wasn’t on the court.

And who wouldn’t want to play every minute after biding his time for so long?

“I know what a tough kid he is, and I know how bad he wants to play and help his team win,” Lawson said. “Seniors only have five more times to go up on that (Williams Arena) court. We’ve got to take advantage of it.”