James is peaking at right time

Aaron Kirscht

With a pair of games left in the regular season — and the Big Ten title securely in hand — Gophers coach Clem Haskins sought to shore up one of his team’s enduring weaknesses: rebounding.
He knew that without a dominant inside force, a Minnesota run through the upcoming NCAA tournament could be shorter than expected. On Thursday, Haskins’ concerns were confirmed. The Gophers pulled away late to beat Michigan State 81-74, but the rebounding problem has yet to be solved. The Spartans out-rebounded Minnesota 35-32.
“I’m still not happy with our rebounding,” Haskins said. “We’re just not attacking the boards. Several times, they got second and third shots. We just have to block out and go after the basketball.”
The bulk of the pressure to improve fell on the broad shoulders of forward Courtney James, who has failed to reach double digits in rebounds in 9 of the last 11 games, and senior John Thomas. James still leads the team in rebounding, but says that he and Thomas need to do even more.
“Me and John are two of the biggest guys in basketball,” he said, “and we should be rebounding more. Bobby (Jackson) is one of our leading rebound guys. That’s good for us as a team and everything, but John and I have to be up there, too.”
James has struggled through the latter part of the season and his scoring punch has softened as well. Until he hit for 14 points last weekend at Indiana, James hadn’t scored more than nine points in a game in more than two months.
“I know I’m not playing as good as I can,” he said. “When tournament time comes around, I’m going to have to do a lot better, because everybody’s got a good down-low man that I’m going to have to match up with.”
The sophomore forward may be peaking at just the right time, however. In his last two games, James is averaging more than 14 points and nine rebounds. More than anything, he said, these last two games have given him much-needed confidence.
For a stretch in the middle of the first half, James carried the Gophers. He scored eight of his 10 first-half points in a four-minute stretch. He was one of three Gophers to grab four rebounds in the first half, and finished with nine.
But that wasn’t good enough — at least not for James.
“I don’t think I rebounded as good as I should have,” he said. “I had nine, but I should have had 16 or 17. Today, I guess the rebounds just weren’t coming my way.”
The high expectations came easy with James’ impressive freshman season. He averaged seven points and seven rebounds last season, but has improved to just eight points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
But for now, the Gophers will need more, which James seems more than willing to provide. Haskins is confident that James can come through.
“We know he’s going to be special,” Haskins said. “Rebounding is a concern we have heading into the postseason, but I think it’s something we can clean up, something we can secure. And Courtney will be a big part of that.”