Gophers prepare for Illinois

Zach Eisendrath

From his first day on the job, interim Minnesota men’s basketball coach Jim Molinari has said he will do everything in his power to do what’s best for the program in the long haul, no matter how short his tenure as coach might be.

One of Molinari’s main goals during his current stopgap stint as the Gophers’ coach has been the continuing development of freshman center Bryce Webster.

After making his first career start in Minnesota’s 60-49 loss at Iowa on Saturday, Webster will be thrown into the fire again tonight when the Gophers host Illinois at 6 at Williams Arena.

With junior center Spencer Tollackson sidelined for the better part of the next three weeks with a broken hand, Molinari began to accelerate Webster’s learning curve by playing him a career-high 28 minutes against the Hawkeyes.

Perhaps Webster’s numbers – four points, four rebounds and one block – weren’t a good indication of his composure.

After the game against Iowa, Molinari said Webster is capable of being an elite Big Ten player before his Minnesota days are over. And, on Monday, Molinari reiterated this point.

“Bryce is going to be successful. Bryce is a can’t miss,” he said. “He wants to learn. He’s humble, and he’s active.”

Staying active will be key for Webster and his frontcourt teammates, sophomore center Jonathan Williams and junior forward Dan Coleman, who will have their hands full tonight against Illinois (13-6 overall, 1-3 Big Ten).

Considering the Gophers (7-10, 1-2) were outscored in the paint 24-14 by perimeter-oriented Iowa, Illinois should present much bigger problems on the inside. In fact, Illinois outscored the Hawkeyes 34-22 in the paint just seven days ago.

That’s not all. Illini coach Bruce Weber’s top-two scorers reside in the post. Senior Warren Carter averages 13.7 points per game, while junior Shaun Pruitt has produced 11.2 points per game.

“Carter’s really tough. Pruitt’s tough,” Molinari said. “They are a better inside group (than Iowa).”

In order to match that toughness, Webster will have to show off some of the same talent he’s displayed in practice.

Redshirted guard Kevin Payton said Webster’s work in practice was a big reason why he wasn’t surprised by Webster’s composure in the game against Iowa, which was his first significant playing time in nearly two months.

“I was really impressed with the way he handled himself for his first start in the Big Ten. On the road, it doesn’t get any bigger than that,” Payton said. “I think he really stepped up.”

Webster said he felt comfortable on the floor, despite his lack of collegiate experience.

“I just went to the game looking to make some plays,” he said. “I had a little pre-game nervousness, but once I got in there, it was just like playing basketball.”

The 6-foot-9-inch, 240-pounder said he had a shaky first few months with the team. Coming into the season, Webster said he was a bit arrogant because of his high school credentials and then lost some confidence as he played sparingly. But now, Webster said he has regained his self-belief.

“I got a lot of confidence from that (start),” he said. “But I don’t want to make the mistake and think I’m on top of the world now. I still want to go in there and stick to my fundamentals and basics.”

Webster’s next step is to become a scoring-threat to complement junior Lawrence McKenzie and Coleman.

“That was one thing missing in the Iowa game,” Webster said of Minnesota’s 16-point first half performance. “I’m going to try and be an offensive presence because we definitely needed one (against Iowa).”

Molinari has similar plans for Webster as the Gophers enter the meat of their Big Ten campaign.

“Hopefully we can get him more involved, more impactful,” he said. “But I’m going to keep starting him.”