Sampson stepping up for Gophers

The sophomore has been a bright spot for a team in need of wins.

Sampson stepping up for Gophers

Marco LaNave

Ralph Sampson III is starting to do what Tubby Smith wants from him. The Gophers menâÄôs basketball team has yet to reach its preseason expectations, the head coach admits, but the sophomore center has already shown improvement offensively and defensively, as well as more energy on the court. Sampson has emerged as a bright spot for Minnesota (14-8 overall, 5-5 Big Ten), which is seeking to see more as it begins a stretch of seven games in 20 days with a matchup against Michigan (11-12, 4-7 Big Ten) Thursday night at Williams Arena. As a freshman in 2008-09, Sampson showed promise defensively, blocking 50 shots to finish fourth in the Big Ten. This season, he raised his scoring and rebounding average, while continuing to solidify his defensive ability. âÄúHeâÄôs in the right spot, usually. HeâÄôs really trying to make a play there, and he covers up for a lot of defensive mistakes,âÄù Smith said. âÄúAnd heâÄôs starting to gain some confidence offensively.âÄù A 6-foot-11-inch center, Sampson has started in all but three games this season. His scoring (8.3 points per game) and rebounding (team-leading 6.2 per game, ninth in the Big Ten) are both up from last season, and his 2.1 blocks per game are second in the conference. Beyond the numbers, Sampson said he is more comfortable than he was last season. âÄúSeeing different teams, different players, different styles was just a lot in one year,âÄù Sampson said. âÄúSo this year, I can create more, and I have a lot more experience now.âÄù Smith said Sampson just had to get stronger before his second Big Ten season. âÄúHis conditioning was very poor when he got here,âÄù Smith said. âÄúStamina, endurance, all those things take time âĦ thatâÄôs the key.âÄù Sampson played 25 minutes just once in the last eight games of the 2008-09 Big Ten regular season, but he has played at least 25 minutes in the last six games. Sampson recorded his second double-double of the season when he scored 13 points and had 10 rebounds in a 66-64 victory over Penn State. If Sampson can consistently play like he did against Penn State, the Gophers will have the inside presence they need to be great, senior forward Damian Johnson said. âÄúMost of the top teams have a big inside-out combination âĦ Ralph is making strides right now. HeâÄôs really getting into it,âÄù Johnson said. The Gophers expected more solid play at the post positions this season, including from sophomore center Colton Iverson, whose minutes and points are down from last season. Although Iverson said itâÄôs been a mostly frustrating season for him personally, he added that Sampson has set an example with the way he has stepped up. âÄúI see his confidence and his aggressiveness in the post, and thatâÄôs really something that this team needed this season,âÄù Iverson said. Iverson is not the only player from whom Smith expects more. Smith said he has recently sat Lawrence Westbrook late in games because he wants the senior guard to play better defense. Smith is also concerned about his teamâÄôs 3-point shooting defense, which has allowed at least nine 3-pointers per game since junior point guard Al Nolen was ruled academically ineligible. Minnesota is the only Big Ten team to allow its conference opponents to make 40 percent of their 3-point shots. Thursday nightâÄôs game will feature two teams who believe they are better than theyâÄôve performed this season, Smith said. Michigan was ranked No. 15 in the preseason AP poll. But John BeileinâÄôs squad, which swept the Gophers last season, has lost five of its last six games to drop below .500. âÄúWe have a lot of things we have to shore up to even duplicate either one of those performances [last season],âÄù Beilein said earlier this week. Beilein said the GophersâÄô defense, led by Sampson and Johnson, is among his biggest concerns entering ThursdayâÄôs game. Smith still sees it as an area for improvement, but Beilein described it as a strength for the Gophers. âÄúThey present challenges just in the way that they play,âÄù Beilein said. âÄúTheyâÄôre playing smaller right now, but theyâÄôre creating a lot of havoc with a lot of people.âÄù