Sampson channeling inner guard for trip to Penn St.

When Minnesota goes big, Ralph Sampson III more or less is a third guard.

Ralph Sampson III takes a jump shot on Sunday against Iowa at Hawkeye-Carver arena.

Joe Michaud-Scorza

Ralph Sampson III takes a jump shot on Sunday against Iowa at Hawkeye-Carver arena.

Josh Katzenstein

And for the Gophers, at guard, from Duluth, Ga., standing 6-foot-11, Ralph Sampson III.

Wait a minute âĦ a 6-11 guard?

When point guard Al Nolen went down with a foot injury, Blake Hoffarber had to fill his shoes, but HoffarberâÄôs positional transition pales in comparison to SampsonâÄôs âÄî partly because he has experience playing point guard.

In the GophersâÄô offense, Hoffarber said, the shooting guard and small forward effectively play the same position, so when Minnesota uses its big lineup with Sampson, Trevor Mbakwe (6-8) and Colton Iverson (6-10), Sampson becomes the small forward and, more or less, a guard.

âÄúI think every big man has a little guard inside them that says, âÄòOh I can do this, I can do that,âÄôâÄù Sampson said. âÄúNow being able to display that and actually display some of the skills that IâÄôve been working on âĦ is unreal.âÄù

Since Nolen left the GophersâÄô lineup six games ago, Samspon is averaging 11.2 points per game. Much of that scoring is coming from the perimeter as Sampson has displayed a nice jump shot. Minnesota hasnâÄôt used the big lineup in all those games, but in the four games it has, Sampson has shown crisp passing and is averaging 2.75 assists per game.

âÄúI kind of like being in the big lineup because âĦ I get to be out on the perimeter and help facilitate the ball to players,âÄù Sampson said. âÄúI feel that thatâÄôs also one of my strengths is getting the ball to the open man. âĦ It also helps me score from outside angles and knock down the outside jumper.âÄù

Sampson might be making the biggest change offensively, but on the defensive end, sophomore Rodney Williams has had a completely different task than three weeks ago. When the Gophers go big, Williams becomes the shooting guard, and with that adjustment comes the assignment of playing at the top of the 2-3 zone, which theyâÄôve increasingly employed.

When Minnesota plays at Penn State tonight, it will likely use that zone, coach Tubby Smith said, meaning Williams will play an integral role in stopping Talor Battle. The Nittany LionsâÄô point guard is second in the Big Ten in scoring (20.4 points per game) and is just the second player in the conference to log 2,000 career points in the last decade.

Hoffarber said he and Williams will have to communicate during every possession to be aware of where Battle is, as well as keep the big men alert of when he drives the lane.

âÄúEven when Nolen was here, he was tough to guard,âÄù Smith said of Battle. âÄúItâÄôs important that no one guy will be guarding him. WeâÄôve got to find a way to contain him.âÄù

Battle has fallen short of double-digit scoring just once this season, so stopping him is nearly impossible. In order to contain him, the Gophers will need to keep pressure on him the whole game, something they successfully managed last season when they held him to a combined 10-for-29 shooting (34.5 percent) in two games âÄî both Gophers wins.

Another way to stop Battle is to simply offset his scoring, and the best candidate to do that could be Williams. The Gophers are 6-0 this season when Williams scores in double figures, and the 6-foot-7 now-guard could flourish in a matchup against Penn StateâÄôs 6-foot-1 sophomore guard Tim Frazier. If Williams plays like he did against Iowa on Sunday, when he scored 11 of his 13 points in the first half, the Gophers could be well-rounded enough to walk away with a road victory that would do wonders for their tournament résumé.

âÄúWhen RodneyâÄôs playing with that type of energy, crashing the boards [and] using his athleticism, it kind of opens up the game for a lot of people,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄúIt kind of gets his confidence going too âĦ When heâÄôs playing at that type of level weâÄôre pretty tough to beat.âÄù