Questions linger as NCAAs loom

Murali Balaji

Entering the season, the Gophers men’s basketball team had a number of questions that needed to be answered.
While some questions — such as who will be the leading scorer — were answered within the first few games of the season, a handful of concerns went unresolved through the regular season, and even more questions popped up.
Gophers coach Clem Haskins spent the better part of the conference schedule trying to address his primary concerns before the postseason, but five critical questions still remain.
Minnesota’s ability to address these concerns will be a deciding factor in how far it can march through NCAA tournament play.
1) Can this team develop the confidence it needs to win on the road?
Despite Haskins’ repeated assertion that the Gophers have the confidence to win away from Williams Arena, their first-round loss to Illinois seems to indicate otherwise.
Traveling to Seattle, away from the pressures of the Big Ten environment, could work in the team’s favor. A trip out west could be a breath of fresh air.
“You know, we’re taking the attitude that we’re going to enjoy Seattle and its surroundings, but we’re going to be ready to play basketball,” forward Quincy Lewis said. “I think it’s important for our younger players to get used to playing away from home.”
2) How far can Quincy Lewis carry the Gophers?
Lewis dominated the Big Ten conference this year, and his peerless play made him the undisputed focus of opposing teams.
The Illini frustrated Lewis in the conference tournament by taking away the perimeter and the baseline, severely hindering the Big Ten leading scorer’s ability to utilize open spaces in the halfcourt offense.
Gonzaga coach Dan Monson is undoubtedly watching tapes of the way Illinois coach Lon Kruger defensed Lewis. Monson is cognizant of the fact that stopping Lewis and de-emphasizing him in the Minnesota offense is like taking the keys out of a car.
“We know that they expect us to come out and guard him pretty aggressively,” Monson said. “I think with players like Lewis and (Kevin) Clark, you’ve got to respect their strengths and take advantage of any weakness that they might show during the game.”
The success that the Bulldogs have in containing Lewis — and to a lesser extent, Clark — will likely decide the outcome of the game.
3) How much of an impact will the bench play in the tournament?
This is a question that has kept poking at Haskins like a thorn in his side, but it just won’t go away.
While the team’s reserves — especially forward Dusty Rychart and guard Mitch Ohnstad — emerged during the last month of the regular season, the consistency of the bench is still a major sticking point to the Gophers’ aspirations in the tournament.
“We feel confident that some of our guys can step up and play well for us,” Haskins said. “It could be Jason Stanford, Mitch Ohnstad or Kyle Sanden. It could be Dusty Rychart and Antoine Broxsie.”
Haskins remains convinced that his bench will give him quality minutes, but the lack of a consistent sixth man could throw a wrench into his plans for a set rotation. Heading into the tournament, the logical choice for the first player off the bench is the 6-foot-7 Rychart, who worked his way into that role late in the regular season.
But while Rychart may be an uncovered gem ready to shine as a top reserve, it’s doubtful he will play anywhere close to the level of fellow sixth men Morris Peterson of Michigan State and Jason Singleton of Ohio State.
4) Where is the rebounding?
There have been times when the Minnesota players in the paint have flirted with dominance, as exhibited by forward Miles Tarver’s emphatic 17-rebound performance on Jan. 26 against Indiana and center Joel Przybilla’s 13 boards on Jan. 9 against Penn State.
However, there have been games where the team’s rebounding has been less than impressive, making this a glaring question mark. When Tarver, Przybilla, Rychart and forwards Sanden and Broxsie are in the game, they provide Minnesota with a formidable rotation of rebounders.
However, Tarver’s back pains, Sanden’s foul trouble and the youthful inconsistency of Przybilla and Broxsie have made it difficult for the Gophers to gain a constant advantage over their opponents on the boards.
“Miles has really been bothered by his back,” Haskins said. “We hope he can come out and give us 30-plus minutes as a starter.”
Tarver might have benefitted from the Gophers’ early exit in the conference tournament, giving his back extra time to heal. Whether he is at 100 percent by the time the team tips off against Gonzaga remains to be seen.
5) Is the point guard situation resolved?
Not even close. This question has gone unanswered since the graduation of Eric Harris. Sophomore Kevin Nathaniel has backed into the role of primary ball handler, but the coaching staff’s hope is for Terrance Simmons to re-assert himself at the helm.
But Nathaniel is entrenched as the starter for the rest of the season, and Haskins seems comfortable with giving him even more playing time in the postseason.
“I thought Kevin Nathaniel played excellent basketball in the Big Ten tournament,” Haskins said. “I pulled him aside after the game and told him that he had one heck of a ballgame.”
“I’ve been getting more confident with more playing time,” Nathaniel said. “I think you can see an improvement in the way I’ve played since the beginning of the season.”