Spreading the ball could help keep Gophers going

No. 25 Minnesota hosts Stephen F. Austin at 7 p.m. Monday.

Marco LaNave

With off-court issues dominating the story lines to start the season, it might seem strange that the word unselfish is being used around the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team. But the Gophers claimed that descriptor with a flurry of passes in an 87-50 victory over Tennessee Tech last Friday. On 34 field goals, the Gophers had 25 assists, the most since they had 26 against Penn State in the final regular season game of 2003-04. âÄúA lot of it had to do with Tennessee Tech [being] a pretty solid defensive team, but I think weâÄôre doing a better job this year than we were last year,âÄù Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said. On Monday night, No. 25 Minnesota will host Stephen F. Austin, which made its first NCAA Tournament appearance after winning the Southland Conference last season. MondayâÄôs game will be the season opener for the Lumberjacks. The Gophers have a size advantage against the Lumberjacks, and senior guard Lawrence Westbrook said the GophersâÄô athleticism can wear on opponents when they share the ball to get easy shots. âÄúWith any talented team, youâÄôre not going to win unless you play together,âÄù he said. Westbrook said the team has a lot of skilled passers who sometimes will try to pass when they have easier open shots. âÄúWe want them to get the layup, but I can never yell at somebody for being unselfish,âÄù Westbrook said. Nine different players had assists Friday. Junior point guard Al Nolen led the team with seven, and sophomore guard Devoe Joseph had four. Joseph said the GophersâÄô unselfishness comes from practice and from playing together during the summer. âÄúWe knew we had a lot of talented guys on the team,âÄù Joseph said. âÄúNo one needs to do it by himself.âÄù Joseph came to Minnesota as the 10th-ranked shooting guard in the 2008 recruiting class, according to Rivals.com, but last season he was often the backup point guard to Nolen. He finished second on the team with 50 assists. He said he has improved his passing skills since last year. âÄúI donâÄôt really look for the shot,âÄù Joseph said. âÄúIf I get an open look or I start driving and the guyâÄôs [back] off of me, IâÄôll pull up. If somebody else is open, IâÄôm looking to find them.âÄù It wasnâÄôt just the guards passing the ball Friday. Senior forward Damian Johnson and sophomore center Ralph Sampson III each had three assists. âÄúOur post players do a good job of throwing the ball out of the post,âÄù Smith said. âÄúAll of our guys are willing to share the basketball, so if we just take good shots that are open and in-rhythm âĦ weâÄôll be much more effective.âÄù WhiteâÄôs status unchanged After appearing on the Gophers bench in street clothes for the two exhibition games, suspended freshman forward Royce White was not at Friday nightâÄôs opener. âÄúI thought itâÄôd be best because of some of the distractions or just finding out what has happened in this last episode,âÄù Smith said. White was cited for misdemeanor theft and assault after an incident at the Mall of America on Oct. 13, according to a Bloomington police report, and is a suspect in an on-campus theft, according to an athletics department spokesman. The latter incident allegedly occurred just days after WhiteâÄôs indefinite suspension was announced. âÄúAs soon as that investigation is completed, weâÄôll probably have some type of statement about his status with our program,âÄù Smith said. Smith would not say whether White would be at MondayâÄôs game, but he said off-court issues have not deterred the team from its goals. âÄúYouâÄôre going to have things come up, whether itâÄôs nagging injuries or something you have to overcome,âÄù Smith said. âÄúI think these guys have shown a lot of maturity, and we have a very solid group of kids, and IâÄôve said that from day one.âÄù