Minnesota may employ point guard by committee

With senior Al Nolen out indefinitely, the task of running the offense will likely be split between at least three different players.

Josh Katzenstein

When Al Nolen landed on someoneâÄôs foot âÄî heâÄôs not sure whose âÄî during MinnesotaâÄôs win at Michigan on Saturday, he knew immediately something was wrong.

âÄúI was going to try to go back in, but I couldnâÄôt even stand or walk on it, so I figured I had done something really bad,âÄù the senior guard said of the incident that left him with a broken right foot. âÄúIt kind of felt like somebody stabbed me.âÄù

Nolen is scheduled to undergo surgery Wednesday to have a pin put into his foot and will be out indefinitely. Likely a combination of players will step in to fill his vacated point guard spot as the No. 16 Gophers try to build on a three-game win streak.

Nolen, meanwhile, will be back on the sidelines cheering, as he did when he missed five games earlier this season with a stress fracture in the same foot.

âÄúIâÄôm going to keep my spirits up so the guys will stay up,âÄù Nolen said. âÄúWeâÄôre just going to have to move forward, and IâÄôm going to have to become a coach on the floor.âÄù

Minnesota (15-4, 4-3 Big Ten) has been here before. Nolen missed the final 17 games last season due to academic ineligibility, but the 2009-10 Gophers had Lawrence Westbrook âÄî who graduated âÄî and sophomore Devoe Joseph âÄî who transferred to Oregon earlier this month âÄî to help overcome the loss and advance to the NCAA tournament.

This season, the Gophers must rely on freshmen guards to cement the backcourt in addition to senior Blake Hoffarber, who will likely play significant minutes at point guard, where he said heâÄôs comfortable. At some point, though, the freshmen âÄî Maverick Ahanmisi, Chip Armelin and Austin Hollins âÄî will have to prove their worth.

âÄúI think all the freshmen are ready to step in and try to fill as much of [NolenâÄôs] shoes as possible,âÄù forward Trevor Mbakwe said. âÄúThey came here to play on the big stage in a big conference, and theyâÄôre getting a chance to play now.âÄù

With Nolen out, head coach Tubby Smith has numerous directions he can go with the starting lineup. AhanmisiâÄôs natural position is point guard, but Hoffarber filled in for Nolen in the second half against Michigan and finished with no turnovers and six assists in 36 minutes.

Armelin is best suited as a shooting guard, but Hollins and sophomore Rodney Williams, who has been playing small forward, can play that position as well. If Williams and Hoffarber play as the two guards, Smith could start all three of his post players âÄî Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson and Colton Iverson. Mbakwe said the Gophers practiced with the big lineup during practice Monday and Tuesday and hinted that they could implement it as the new starting five.

âÄúWeâÄôll be playing with a big lineup, and we all have to get better at perimeter defense,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄúWe all kind of just have to gel.âÄù

On Monday, Smith said he only knew that Hoffarber, Sampson and Williams will start Wednesday night against Northwestern. Mbakwe hasnâÄôt started in any of the last three games as part of his punishment for being arrested Jan. 11. He pleaded not guilty to violating a restraining order filed by an ex-girlfriend but admitted to sending her a Facebook message.

If the Gophers go big, they will lose speed, which could hurt them significantly against a team like Northwestern. The Wildcats (13-6, 3-5) are shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range, and the Gophers are ninth in the Big Ten in 3-point defense.

Northwestern also features the Big TenâÄôs fourth-best scorer, forward John Shurna. The 6-foot-8 junior averages 19.2 points per game, and he creates a constant mismatch because he has fantastic range and is quick enough to beat most players his size off the dribble.

âÄúWhoeverâÄôs on him will have a real challenge,âÄù Smith said. âÄúIt wonâÄôt be one guy stopping him. ItâÄôll have to be a team effort.âÄù

It will also take a team effort to replace Nolen, especially on the defensive end. Nolen averaged 2.4 steals in 14 games this season and is regarded as one of the best lockdown defenders in the Big Ten.

âÄúHeâÄôs our team leader,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄúHeâÄôs our captain. We go as he goes, and thatâÄôs tough.âÄù

Having already lost Joseph and freshman center Mo Walker to a season-ending knee injury, the Gophers have just nine players who are healthy or eligible (because they donâÄôt plan to pull Elliott EliasonâÄôs redshirt).

Now, not only will the untested freshmen have to elevate their game, but Hoffarber âÄî NolenâÄôs co-captain âÄî must take on more responsibility without losing his scoring touch. Hoffarber leads the Gophers in scoring (13.7 points per game) and assists (4.4 per game). The question is whether he can produce the same numbers while trying to create for everyone else.

âÄúI really concentrated this summer on getting my passing game up and ball handling stuff,âÄù Hoffarber said. âÄúI can handle the ball and can be a leader from the point guard position.âÄù

As for the freshmen, everyone sounds confident in their abilities, and Nolen will continue to help them improve from the sideline.

âÄúTheyâÄôve got to play their game and just be confident with what they do,âÄù Nolen said. âÄúIf they think somethingâÄôs right out on the floor, theyâÄôve just got to make that decision. If they make a mistake [theyâÄôve] got to forget about it and keep moving forward.âÄù