Can the Minnesota Gophers Continue to Win with Guard Al Nolen Sidelined?

Kevin LindseyAnalyst IJanuary 26, 2011

Al Nolen
Al NolenJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The recent news from the Twin Cities concerning point guard Al Nolen is not good.  Nolen has broken his right foot and will have surgery Jan. 26.

No timetable has been set for Nolen’s return. The most optimistic scenario for this season would be for Nolen to return just in time for postseason play.  

However, it is very likely that Nolen will not return this season, and will instead opt to request an additional medical redshirt year.

Nolen is a critical player to the success of the Gophers because he is their best perimeter defender, and the team lacks depth at the point guard position since Devoe Joseph left the program earlier this month.

The importance of Nolen’s ability to defend the three was glaringly evident when he failed to play, due to injury, in the Gophers' 87-79 loss to Virginia in the Barn when the Cavaliers shot 10-of-13 from beyond the arc.

If Nolen is unable to play again this season, the first question on the lips of most Gophers fans is whether Minnesota can make a deep run into the NCAA tournament.

Of course, in order to make a deep run in March Madness, Minnesota first needs to get into the tournament. 

Currently, the Gophers are 15-4 overall and 4-3 in the Big Ten.    

Minnesota has 11 games left on its schedule, and conventional wisdom would suggest that if it could finish 5-6 the rest of the season, it would guarantee itself a bid to the tournament with 20 wins on the season and .500 record in one of the best, if not the best, conferences in the country.

Ordinarily, a 5-6 finish for a top-20 team would not be a daunting task, but unfortunately, the Big Ten is loaded this year.

Minnesota has to play three ranked opponents on its schedule.

The three ranked opponents left for the Gophers are No. 12 Purdue on Jan. 29, No. 1 Ohio State on Feb. 6 and No. 21 Illinois on Feb. 10. Purdue is the lone road game among remaining ranked opponents.

Minnesota needs to try and win at least one of these three games to give itself some breathing room in securing an NCAA bid. Psychologically, Purdue could be the one of the three games the Gophers could win, because Minnesota has already beaten the Boilermakers this year.

The Gophers, however, might also be able to defeat the Illini, as Illinois has not played well away from home and has a tendency to be inconsistent in its perimeter shooting.

Additionally, Minnesota has several difficult games against unranked teams that have NCAA tournament aspirations and stars that can almost single-handedly defeat it.

The Gophers play Northwestern and John Shurna in a home and away series. Shurna is averaging 19 points a game and is shooting a ridiculous 54 percent from beyond the arc.

Minnesota also has to take on Talor Battle and Penn State twice. Battle is a two-time All Big Ten selection who has done a nice job incorporating his teammates in the offense while still managing to score 20 points a game.

The Gophers still have to go to East Lansing to play former Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas and the Michigan State Wolverines.

Minnesota needs to win at least two of these five games in order to have a shot at making the NCAA tournament. 

Coach Tubby Smith has a dilemma on his hands in determining who to hand the starting point guard position.

Coach Smith has three freshman guards in Maverick Ahanmisi, Chip Armelin and Austin Hollins, who can play minutes at the point guard position.

None of the freshmen, however, are ready to inherit the position, as they have all suffered from inconsistency during the season.

The most likely heir apparent is moving senior Blake Hoffarber from shooting guard to the point guard position given his experience and position as captain on the team. 

Hoffarber’s new role will likely have a domino effect on the team’s starting lineup. Small forward Rodney Williams will likely shift to shooting guard, and Trevor Mbakwe will start in the small forward position. 

The Gophers, with Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III added to the mix, will have one of the biggest starting lineups in college basketball.

The problem for the Gophers going with a big lineup is that they don’t have any big bodies to back up the starters in case of fatigue of foul trouble. Freshman Maurice Walker, who played well earlier in the year off the bench, suffered a season-ending knee injury. 

While he doesn’t like utilizing zone defense, Coach Smith may have to start using more zone defense to avoid foul trouble for his post players.

Against Michigan, the Gophers struggled to defend the perimeter playing man-to-man defense, and as a result, the Wolverines hit several uncontested 3-point shots in the first half. Minnesota’s inability to defend the three playing man defense most often occurred when Sampson and Iverson were on the floor at the same time.

In the second half, the Gophers went to an aggressive half-court zone as their primary defense. The zone allowed Sampson and Iverson to stay underneath where they were more comfortable.

The aggressive half-court zone limited the number of open shots Michigan was able to take in the second half, and as a result, the Gophers went on to win, 69-64.

Next up for the Gophers is Northwestern. The Wildcats will pose some interesting defensive problems for Minnesota. 

Northwestern’s Michael Thompson is an above-average on-ball defender, and he will likely try to wear Hoffarber down to limit his ability to shoot 3-point shots with constant ball pressure.

The Wildcats have some size to contend with Minnesota’s interior line, as the 6-foot-10, 250-pound Luka Mirkovic and 6-foot-9, 240-pound Davide Curletti will not allow Minnesota to easily exploit the paint as they did against Michigan.

Finally, Minnesota will have to figure out how to contain Shurna. Shurna is likely too quick for Mbakwe to defend on the wing, and he is likely too big for Williams on the block to defend.

Of course, the Wildcats will also have their own share of defensive problems in playing the Gophers.

Minnesota needs five more wins to feel good about its chances of getting an NCAA bid, and a win tonight at home in the Barn over Northwestern will be important first step.