No matter what the sport, the phrase, “you never know who’s going to show up” has been applied to virtually every team on some occasion.
Usually it’s said by a coach lamenting that he has no clue who’s going to score points, goals, or touchdowns on a consistent basis.
The Gophers men’s basketball team is no exception. No player has scored in double figures in all four Big Ten games this season, and no one averages more than 14 points per game. In Minnesota’s case, though, that’s the plan.
Coach Clem Haskins takes pride in his no-star system, reveling in its ability to produce a different hero every game. Sophomore forward Courtney James was the Big Ten Player of the Week last week. This week that honor will probably go to senior guard Bobby Jackson, who was spectacular against Indiana and Michigan.
Lately, Minnesota’s bench has also been showcasing a different man of the hour each game. Quincy Lewis scored 20 against the Hoosiers on Tuesday, and on Saturday, Charles Thomas emerged from season-long obscurity to score 11 important points in the Gophers’ 70-64 win over the Wolverines.
His 3-pointer with 3:40 left in the first half capped an 11-0 run that gave Minnesota the lead it would never lose. Early in the second half, Thomas scored eight straight Gophers’ points over a two-minute span that helped Minnesota keep it’s comfortable lead.
“Without his 11 points and defensive presence,” Haskins said of Thomas, “we don’t win the game.”
Those 11 points were one more than Thomas had scored in the Gophers’ first three Big Ten games combined. Another number made Thomas’ performance even more surprising: He played just eight minutes.
Thomas has had back problems the entire season that he thinks, but isn’t sure, are because of back spasms. The pain caused him to miss practice Thursday and Friday, and forced him from Saturday’s game for good with 11 minutes left in the second half.
Then again, eight minutes wasn’t bad considering no one knew if he would play at all until Saturday morning.
“I wanted to help the team,” Thomas said. “During the game (my back) didn’t bother me much. I just wanted to go five or six hard minutes for the team, not myself.”
“He showed great heart,” said Gophers forward Sam Jacobson. “It’s really painful for him. He has to come in an hour early every day for treatment. I feel bad for him because I know how bad he wants to play.”
Thomas, along with Lewis, Russ Archambault, Miles Tarver and Trevor Winter, make up a reserve corps that has received credit for helping to wear down teams with less depth.
It’s quite a reversal from a year ago, when many of the same players struggled along with the rest of the Gophers. After Saturday’s game, Haskins reminded the media about what he thought was unfair criticism last year regarding his substitution pattern.
“That’s the key,” he said of his substitutes. “Last year we had the great media who questioned my substitutions off the bench. That’s why I played those young guys, OK? We were playing for the future. We’re winning now. I planned it all last year so we’d be in this position this year.”
Last season it would have shocked anyone if a player other than Jackson or Jacobson had a big night. This year it’s not a matter of if that happens, but to whom it will happen.
On Saturday, it happened to Thomas. Clutch performances like that are becoming routine for the 15-1 Gophers. At least that’s how it seemed to Thomas.
“A lot of guys on this team can score,” he said. “When it’s your turn, you’ve got to be productive. But I’ve got confidence in myself and the team.”