Puchtel and Abu-Shamala walk into starts

C.J. Spang

This season can be described as hit or miss for Minnesota’s men’s basketball team. But two walk-ons have become quite a hit as of late.

Senior forward Zach Puchtel and freshman guard Jamal Abu-Shamala both walked onto the squad this year and have made their presence felt as of late.

The Gophers hope the two will continue their success at 7 tonight when they take on Penn State at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pa.

“They have brought into the rotation what we asked them to do,” coach Dan Monson said. “Jamal to give us a little bit of an offensive spark, and Zach to give us a little bit of a defensive presence. And I think they’ve both done that.”

Puchtel had been used sparingly before Minnesota’s Jan. 29 game against Indiana ” just 38 minutes in nine different games ” but got the surprise start and the responsibility of guarding Marco Killingsworth, arguably one of the best big men in the country.

The senior forward was up to the task, holding Killingsworth to just two points in the first half and just 15 for the game.

“I went into the game expecting to do that,” Puchtel said. “Before I play, I do a lot of visualization, meditation, that sort of stuff. So the night before, I just pictured how I was going to guard him and I came out and did exactly what I saw.”

For Abu-Shamala, he was a big reason the Gophers stuck with Ohio State on Saturday.

The freshman guard dropped in a career-high 16 points ” 13 in the first half ” on 4-7 shooting from three-point range.

That performance vaulted him back into the conference lead in three-point shooting percentage at 52.9 percent on the season.

“I sort of got a rhythm going,” Abu-Shamala said. “Once you hit a couple shots, the confidence goes up, and it just sort of felt like I couldn’t miss.”

That feeling is important not only for Abu-Shamala but for the team as well.

“There’s no question that we’re a team that individually is looking for confidence and as a team looking for confidence,” Monson said. “And to have a guy come in that hasn’t lost his is very important for our basketball team right now.

“Every time he shoots it he thinks it’s going in. But probably more important than that, his teammates do.”

But for the two walk-ons, this season has been about more than just two games. It was about a dream to play Division I basketball.

Puchtel spent the past three years at Harvard playing football and junior varsity basketball. But the chance to play Division I basketball was just something he couldn’t pass up.

“It’s been just a great experience ” definitely a life-changing experience,” Puchtel said. “It made me learn a lot about patience and just waiting for your time.”

It was a different road for Abu-Shamala, who had offers from a number of Division II schools across Minnesota and even had offers to walk-on at West Virginia, Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern.

But the three-point threat wanted to stay close to home and play for the team he had watched growing up in Shakopee, Minn.

“Early on in the year, I didn’t even know if I was going to play,” Abu-Shamala said. “I was just figuring I’d come here, practice and maybe redshirt.”

But when Minnesota’s backcourt was decimated by injury early in the season, Abu-Shamala picked up valuable playing time.

“After that, it was sort of like I was one of the main players, and I had to keep working to get better,” Abu-Shamala said. “Then to get starts now is even more overwhelming.”

While both walk-ons are enjoying the starts and the playing time, it all comes second to winning.

“Winning is first and foremost,” Puchtel said. “If I could sacrifice all my playing time for this team to win, I would.”