Gophers make runs without star center

When junior Kyle Sanden tripped on the opening tip-off of Minnesota’s 89-80 loss to Illinois on Thursday night, it was clear in might take the Gophers’ new starting center a while to get adjusted to his new role.
But with only five games left in the season, the sophomore understands he doesn’t have much time left to make the move.
“It’s almost a forced issue,” Sanden said. “I have to right now, there is no time to work anybody in because we’re so short manned.”
Thrown into the starting role for the departed Joel Przybilla, Sanden finished the game with eight points on 4-of-7 shooting.
But it took the junior almost 16 minutes to get into the offensive act, and by that time the Gophers offense was already focused on the guards.
Gophers coach Dan Monson said Minnesota’s decreased paint offense was a big casualty from Przybilla’s loss but Sanden did a nice job of filling in.
“That is what is so hard,” Monson said. “So many things we did this year were predicated on inside-out (offense). We’re just a different team right now inside, because we don’t have that threat quite as much.”
But even more than the lack of paint offense was the lack of rebounding. Sanden had only one board the entire night.
He also struggled with boxing out the Illini down low. Illinois ripped down 14 offensive rebounds — something that killed Minnesota.
Sanden’s inability to prevent the Illini from scoring on second chances was due in part to fatigue.
He was playing in only his fifth game all season, after sitting out the first half of the year to focus on academics.
The fatigue showed during his 23 minutes on the floor and Monson said his co-captain played far too many minutes as well.
But down the stretch, Sanden won’t be the only Minnesota player who is going to need to step it up at the center position.
Freshman Ryan Wildenborg is going to see a lot more minutes and will need to improve.
Monson said if there is a bright side to Przybilla’s loss, it will be the increased playing time of Wildenborg — something the freshman hasn’t seen a lot of all season.
“He had nice minutes tonight,” Monson said. “That is going to be a positive after he had gotten out of the loop a little bit.”
Wildenborg came off the bench to score just one bucket and collect one board in nine minutes.
But signs of improvement were there for Minnesota.
Illinois coach Lon Kruger gave credit to the Gophers for not packing it in when they learned of the loss of their leading scorer.
“We all know those situations where a key guy goes down, or is dismissed and the other guys rally,” Kruger said. “They are proud and they want to show they are a good basketball team. I thought they did that tonight.”
The Gophers have made a lot of steps to rally around each other this season. Thursday night they made a leap.
ù Both freshman Shane Schilling and junior Terrance Simmons were injured in Thursday’s game.
Schilling left late in the first half and returned in the second with three stitches in his tongue.
Monson said Simmons had “his bell rung” in the second half. His status is unknown.

John R. Carter welcomes comments at [email protected]