Center of attention: Kane and Hagen filling the void

Following the departure of lanky forwards Rick Rickert and Jerry Holman, Aliou Kane and Jeff Hagen will look to be the tall tandem of this year’s Gophers.

by Adam Fink

Minutes into Minnesota’s men’s basketball scrimmage Saturday, Aliou Kane reached up to the glass and pulled down a strong rebound.

While players and coaches said the overall rebounding performance was lacking, Kane and fellow center Jeff Hagen are reasons for optimism this year.

In addition, the duo said they hope to become an anchor in the middle and force opponents to think twice before charging down the lane.

Last year, Rick Rickert (6.2 rebounds per game) and senior Jerry Holman (5.3) led the Gophers in the defensive category. Neither player returned this year.

Rickert and Holman were versatile and lanky forwards who battled bulkier opponents’ centers. Neither weighed more than 225 pounds.

Holman started 32 of Minnesota’s 33 games. Rickert started 31 games. Gophers coach Dan Monson used different lineups all season to find the right combination.

Monson sometimes started three forwards, sometimes three guards and sometimes two forwards and three guards.

Kane and Hagen, on the other hand, are more typical frontcourt players.

Kane, a native of Africa who started playing basketball in 1997, is 6 feet 10 inches and 245 pounds.

Hagen, a junior who grew to 7 feet tall this summer, is 262 pounds.

“I hope that translates into more physical inside presence,” Monson said. “Last year we didn’t get (our rebounding woes) resolved.”

In addition, Minnesota features freshman forward Kris Humphries (6 feet 9 inches, 236 pounds) as another strong frontcourt player.

Hagen will likely become the team’s first option at center. The Minnetonka, Minn., native returned to practice Monday after receiving eight stitches to close a gash on the left side of his cheek.

“People won’t be able to come down the lane like they did in the past,” Hagen said. “Aliou and I are bangers down low. We are blue-collar players who work hard and aren’t afraid to go diving on the floor for loose balls.”

Kane also sees his role as a defensive stopper. He realized the impact he could make this season after watching the Texas Tech game last year, a season in which he redshirted.

In last year’s first game, against the Raiders on Dec. 28, Andre Emmett – this year’s Big 12 preseason player of the year – scored 24 points and five rebounds.

Emmett dominated in the low post as the Gophers were defeated in overtime.

“(Guard) Kevin (Burleson) came up to me afterwards and said they really could have used me,” Kane said. “That is why I am here. I want to make a difference.

“I don’t care if I score 50 points but we lose. I want to play a role and help us win.”

The Big Ten conference is known for its physical style. And in recent years, defense-oriented teams have had success.

For example, Wisconsin, the two-time defending Big Ten champion, has won in the past with its defense, and Michigan State and Illinois won games last season with strong low-post play and timely perimeter shooting.

Hagen and Kane know the role they play in Minnesota’s success.

“If we get into foul trouble,” Kane said, “we are going to be in trouble.”

And Monson, who struggled to find a successful defensive frontcourt last season, said he hopes this year’s team doesn’t have the same problem.

While Monson said last year’s team was built around skilled forwards, he believes the team can still win with bigger personnel.

“It can be done both ways,” the fifth-year Gophers coach said. “We have to find what is best for us.”