Injury benches tenacious Nolen

Luke Middendorf

One of the most surprising aspects on the 2007-2008 Minnesota men’s basketball team has been the emergence of freshman point guard Al Nolen.

Although not a starter, Nolen averages the fourth most minutes per game on the team, right behind the Gophers three seniors.

Nolen averages 5.2 points, nearly four assists and 2.4 steals per game for the Gophers, while also being one of their most tenacious perimeter defenders. Looking at the stat sheet alone, it’s easy to see the impact not having him on the court could make in any given game.

So when the time came for a typical Tubby Smith five-man rotation early in Sunday’s game and Nolen stayed on the bench in his warm-ups, it was obvious it was going to be a plus for the Spartans.

“We were definitely helped without Nolen being in there,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. “I like that kid. I think he’s been a great energy guy for (Minnesota).”

It wasn’t until after the game that Smith revealed Nolen’s injury, which was caused by a knee to his thigh during practice. Smith said Nolen was unable to push off very well and was not at 100 percent.

“Al had been playing so well,” Smith said. “Without him, we weren’t as quick.”

While basketball is mainly a team sport, individual match-ups are key to any win or loss. Thus, when senior point guard Drew Neitzel led Michigan State to a 78-73 victory with 19 points of his own, hindsight says that Nolen’s defensive presence on the senior could have made a significant difference.

Instead, Neitzel was allowed to go 5-of-8 from three-point territory, while back-up point guard Kalin Lucas dropped in 12 points.

Smith said the Gopher’s lack of bench depth caused their perimeter defenders to quickly become tired and less effective.

“Our defense at times broke down tonight, especially when Neitzel got open,” Smith said. “Our rotation in the back court hurt us. We looked winded out there.”

McKenzie steps up

After scoring no points in the first half, senior guard Lawrence McKenzie was one of the few Gophers playing with a purpose in the second half of their loss to Michigan State.

McKenzie exploded with 20 points after intermission, 12 of which came from behind the arc as the senior took many of Minnesota’s crucial shots down the stretch.

The highlight of the night came by way of an essential three-pointer with less than 16 minutes left in the second half, keeping the Gophers within striking distance at 35-36. A few possessions later he nailed another try to give Minnesota its only lead of the second half at 40-38.

In Nolen’s absence, McKenzie shared Minnesota’s point guard duties with Lawrence Westbrook, while also obtaining the privilege of guarding the Spartans’ Drew Neitzel for the majority of the game.

“Lawrence (McKenzie) stepped up big today,” Smith said.