Saturday, December 4, 2010

Pioneer Press Previews Cornell at Minnesota

Pioneer Press
December 4, 2010

Tubby Smith's University of Minnesota basketball team had a different identity last season when point guard Al Nolen was out, but it wasn't far off what Smith wanted because of then-senior Damian Johnson, whom the Gophers coach called the most defensive-minded player he's ever coached.

Johnson, now a professional player overseas, just happened to attend Minnesota's 87-79 loss Monday to Virginia in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

After the game, Smith said his team made a "pathetic" effort defensively in trying to make up for the loss of Nolen, sidelined this season by a foot injury. He also told his players, "Hey, fellas. I need somebody like a Damian Johnson. Can one of you guys evolve into that?"

Problem is, nobody appears capable of it right now. The No. 15-ranked Gophers (6-1), who host Cornell (2-5) tonight at Williams Arena, don't have anyone who can provide the defensive presence Nolen or Johnson brought to the team, especially on the perimeter.

Smith said Devoe Joseph and Rodney Williams are the two players who need to improve the most defensively if the Gophers hope to stop teams from taking over the game from the outside like Virginia did.

Minnesota ranks last in the Big Ten in three-point shooting defense, allowing opposing teams to shoot 38 percent. That the Gophers lead the Big Ten with 6.6 blocks a game is also partly frustrating to Smith. He said it means opposing players are getting to the basket too much.

Minnesota relied on Joseph to be the floor leader and "point of attack" defensively last season when Nolen was academically ineligible for the last 17 games. But Smith trusted Joseph more then than he does now after the Canadian guard returned Monday from a six-game suspension for violating unspecified team rules.

"I'm not going to reward him for what he did (last season)," Smith said because of Joseph's off-the-court issues. "You have to earn it every day. He's the one who put us in jeopardy, put himself in jeopardy. He's been forgiven, but that's it."

Joseph said he learned a lot from being suspended, including that he couldn't "take anything for granted" and always had "to handle your business" because players were under a microscope.

Although he had 16 points in his season debut, Joseph struggled defensively. He hopes to be more defensive-minded but said he could never replace Nolen.

"We're two different players; we both have our strengths," Joseph said. "He's a big part of the defense. And without him in the lineup, we do need to pick it up and improve."

Virginia guards Joe Harris and Mustapha Farrakhan combined for 47 points and eight of their team's 10 three-pointers on 13 shots Monday. Shooting the ball appeared so easy for the Cavaliers at times that Smith and some of his players said afterward it was one of the worst games they've played defensively in a while.

Joseph and senior Blake Hoffarber, who had 19 points, are more suited to lead the team offensively. Freshmen Maverick Ahanmisi and Austin Hollins try to be active defensively, but they still make a lot of mistakes, Smith said, although he praised Hollins' ability to get into the passing lanes and create steals.

Like Nolen, Johnson was a lock-down defender and could make it difficult for anyone on the perimeter to get off a clean shot. That's something the Gophers lack now.

Smith hopes Williams can use his length and jumping ability, similar to the way Johnson did to become known as one of the Big Ten's top defenders. An ankle injury limited the 6-foot-7 forward in the last game, but Smith said Williams appeared back to full speed before Friday's practice. He could start today with Joseph.

"He's got the athleticism; he's got all the tools," Smith said of Williams. "Now, it's a matter of doing it."

Meanwhile, Nolen will be in street clothes again tonight on the bench, likely out for two weeks. But at least, he's expected to be back to help his team defensively.

Johnson has moved on, and he tweeted after watching the Virginia game that "it was hard watching from the sideline."

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