Wasted weekend highlights need for playmaker

Minnesota lacked a go-to option in close losses to Portland and Texas A&M

Josh Katzenstein

The Minnesota menâÄôs basketball team had a golden opportunity to climb the rankings this weekend after a win over then-No. 12 Butler in the 76 Classic on Thursday. But the next two games shed a light on what could prove to be a nagging question for the Gophers this season. Who is going to hit the big shot when they are down? Every team needs a closer, a leader in the huddle who can step in and knock down a bucket when the game is on the line. Last year, it was Lawrence Westbrook, who is surely still cursed by Wisconsin fans for stealing both games of the series in 2008-09. Westbrook, now a senior captain, didnâÄôt get the call in the closing seconds of the losses to Portland and Texas A&M. Instead, it was Blake âÄúBig ShotâÄù Hoffarber who took the final shot against Portland. Against the Aggies, it was junior Paul Carter. Anybody who has spent time in the state of Minnesota since 2005 knows Hoffarber has a knack for hitting big shots. There was the infamous shot from his back which helped Hopkins High School win the Minnesota state championship. For that, Hoffarber also won an ESPY. Then, as a freshman, he knocked down the game-winner against Indiana in the Big Ten tournament with a turnaround jumper as time expired. Hoffarber had no such luck on Friday night in the semifinal game, missing a game-tying 3-pointer with less than four ticks remaining. After missing a game-tying free throw in the closing seconds, Carter had a shot at redemption and a Gophers win. He drove, pulled up to shoot with Minnesota down by 1 and was blocked, leaving just four seconds on the clock as the Aggies took the ball and the game. During both games, Westbrook was on the court. But neither time did he get the rock. Hoffarber had an open look Friday, which is different from his circus game-winners of years past. Carter took the ball at the top of the key and seemed determined to carry Minnesota to third place in the tournament. Unfortunately, tough Aggies defense and CarterâÄôs inexperience spelled a loss for the Gophers. Decent chances in both games, but why was the ball not in WestbrookâÄôs hands? How many times does he have to prove that he is the engine that moves the GophersâÄô offense? Westbrook taking the last shot by no means would have guaranteed a win, but Minnesota has to go with the proven closer. Or, if not Westbrook, why canâÄôt Damian Johnson take a shot late in the game? He may not be the most accurate long-range shooter, but as a senior captain, he has the experience and leadership to help late in the game. Johnson is the emotional leader of the team and arguably the most complete player on the squad. Give him a chance to be the hero. Hopes of a top-10 ranking with a championship berth in the 76 Classic quickly diminished as the Gophers faltered in the semis and the third-place game. They now find themselves out of the rankings. The win over Butler was impressive, but the Bulldogs are not last yearâÄôs Louisville; a defining win that carried the Gophers into the tourney. Close losses to now-No. 25 Portland and now-No. 19 Texas A&M certainly wonâÄôt help MinnesotaâÄôs tournament chances come March. Beating Portland and playing now-No. 7 West Virginia in the championship certainly would have boosted the team both mentally and in the eyes of the nation. Instead, the Gophers (4-2) return to the drawing board as they prepare to face Miami (7-0) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. A win over Miami will certainly help Minnesota gain some momentum as they near the end of non-conference play. Minnesota will make the NCAA Tournament. But unless Tubby Smith decides who will lead his team in a close game, the GophersâÄô resume may not be as impressive as they hoped come March.