Joseph stepping in for Nolen yet again

Josh Katzenstein

Devoe Joseph hasnâÄôt played a game away from Williams Arena since Xavier knocked the Gophers out of the NCAA Tournament on a neutral court in Milwaukee. Sure, he joined the team in Vancouver in September for three exhibition games, but the junior guard sat out the Puerto Rico Tip-Off âÄî the GophersâÄô only three games away from The Barn so far âÄî while serving a suspension due to academics. When Minnesota plays St. JosephâÄôs on Wednesday in Philadelphia, Joseph will be in the starting lineup for the first time since that Xavier game, when he played in place of academically ineligible guard Al Nolen. By helping the Gophers start 6-0 this year, Nolen quickly made people forget about his absence down the stretch last season. Now itâÄôs up to Joseph to keep No. 22 Minnesota (7-1) thriving with Nolen nursing an ankle injury. After practice Tuesday, Joseph said heâÄôs comfortable enough to start. âÄúWeâÄôve been playing since the summertime,âÄù said Joseph, who practiced during his six-game suspension. âÄúTheyâÄôve been here with me in the lineup and IâÄôve been here talking to them, leading and being part of the team, so I feel like theyâÄôre still very comfortable [with me].âÄù Joseph seamlessly filled NolenâÄôs shoes in the final 17 games last season. After playing just two games this season, JosephâÄôs task is to be the teamâÄôs general, and thereâÄôs no better battlefield than a road game in a hostile environment, even if the Hawks are just 3-5. âÄúItâÄôs always exciting going on the road,âÄù Joseph said. âÄúItâÄôs going to be a challenge, and weâÄôre going to have to go up there and play.âÄù JosephâÄôs placement into the starting lineup has nothing to do with freshman point guard Maverick AhanmisiâÄôs play in the two games since NolenâÄôs injury, Smith said. Ahanmisi had seven assists to just one turnover in the only two starts of his young career. Instead, Smith is going with the veteran who played at least 24 minutes in his two games since returning from the suspension. âÄúI think heâÄôs got his legs under him now,âÄù Smith said of Joseph. âÄúHeâÄôs probably our best conditioned athlete that we have on the team when you talk about stamina and endurance, so I look for him to have a good game for us.âÄù Sophomore Rodney Williams will also rejoin the starting lineup Wednesday after recovering from an ankle injury. But Smith doesnâÄôt sound completely confident in the wingâÄôs defensive ability just yet. Asked whether Williams has improved defensively, Smith offered a firm, âÄúNo.âÄù âÄúHeâÄôs got to get better,âÄù Smith said. âÄúHeâÄôs improved [on the whole] because his leg is better, but heâÄôs got a lot more to do to improve.âÄù Williams isnâÄôt the only one with defensive issues, and the Gophers currently rank last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (69.5 points per game). Minnesota has faced a difficult nonconference schedule, but Joseph said the team has emphasized fundamentals since a home loss to Virginia on Nov. 29. âÄúI think thatâÄôs where our tone has been,âÄù Smith said, âÄúand thatâÄôs been our focus for the last couple practices, so weâÄôll see.âÄù The Gophers will need to apply plenty of pressure to HawksâÄô guard Carl Jones, a sophomore averaging 17.5 points per game. St JoeâÄôs three wins have come against mediocre teams, and they lost to the only other Big Ten team they played, Penn State, on Nov. 16. âÄúYou canâÄôt worry about how good the other team is,âÄù Joseph said. âÄúYouâÄôve got to come out and play your hardest so you can not only win the game, but you can get better as a team.âÄù