Looking for something to (re)build on

The Gophers must make due this season without their top six players from last year.

Bob Wothe

Just 12 months ago, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team was celebrating the arrival of Kris Humphries – one of the most talented recruits in program history.

The team was starting four upperclassmen around the blue-chip recruit, and hopes were high that coach Dan Monson had the rebuilding program on the right track.

Then reality hit: The Gophers stumbled to a disappointing 12-18 record, including a 3-13 mark in the Big Ten. Humphries left for the NBA after leading the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding. Suddenly were left the Gophers without, well, anything.

With the top six players in the Gophers’ rotation from last year gone, this rebuilding team is first going to have to find something to build on.

“Can’t nobody replace Kris,” senior guard Aaron Robinson said. “We’re definitely young now and inexperienced, but we’ve got guys who can score and rebound for us down there.”

Humphries is playing for the NBA’s Utah Jazz; Maurice Hargrow is back after transferring to Arkansas midseason last year but cannot play because of NCAA transfer rules; Stan Gaines has transferred to Seton Hall; Michael Bauer and Ben Johnson have graduated; and senior Adam Boone is expected to miss at least three months with a torn bicep.

With all of those players out of the picture, the team’s returning leading scorer is 7-foot center Jeff Hagen, who averaged just 4.3 points per game last season.

The only other players that have even set foot on a college basketball floor are seniors Robinson and Brent Lawson, who averaged a combined 4.1 points per game last year.

The Gophers’ combined 8.4 points per game of returning offense accounts for less than 12 percent of their output a year ago.

Monson, entering his sixth year at Minnesota, said he understands the team will have a difficult time offensively and that he’s counting on the defense to carry the Gophers through.

“We have the ability to be a good defensive club, so that’s going to have to be our strength,” Monson said. “I think it’s always important to win games, but this team can improve on so much more to mark success for us.”

While the cliche goes that defense wins championships, the Gophers will need an offensive boost to win a few more games this year than they did last year.

Monson said he hopes that will come from redshirt freshman Dan Coleman, a 6-foot-9-inch, 220-pound forward who Monson has called the “cornerstone” of Minnesota’s future.

While it doesn’t seem likely Coleman will follow in the footsteps of Rick Rickert or Humphries and collect the third Big Ten freshman of the year award in four years for Minnesota, he will certainly be counted on to lead the Gophers offense.

Other freshmen expected to contribute immediately include Spencer Tollackson and Rico Tucker. Tollackson, a 6-foot-9-inch center, averaged 20.9 points and 9.5 rebounds while garnering Mr. Basketball honors in Minnesota and leading Chaska to a state title last year.

Tucker, a 6-foot point guard from San Diego, had the highest vertical of anyone at the NBA Players Camp or the NBA Pre-Draft Camp.

Finally, the Gophers said they hope for some impact from two junior college transfers: Vincent Grier and J’son Stamper. Grier is expected to make an impact defensively, while Stamper was the fourth-leading junior college rebounder last year.

With all the freshmen and junior college recruits expected to play important roles, Hagen said it’s certainly the youngest team he’s ever played on.

“But it’s one of the hardest-working teams, too,” Hagen said. “We’ve got great chemistry.”

Chemistry was not something the Gophers had last year. Monson said the team never achieved it on the floor. Defense, too, was missing, as the Gophers finished last in the Big Ten by allowing 71.9 points per game.

But Robinson said something has changed, and the Gophers better hope so.

“It’s just a totally different team,” Robinson said. “This team will dive on the floor and take charges and do the little things it takes to win games. I just don’t think that was there last year.”