Lawrence Westbrook (Getty)
The Gophers have been searching for a consistently winning formula, and sending a couple of productive players to reserve roles is one of the options they’ve explored.
Perhaps it was out of desperation, or scrambling to find a late spark in time to save the season. Whatever the reason, Tubby Smith has juggled his starting lineup.
Sophomore Al Nolen was considered the league’s premier point guard halfway through the season. These days, he’s a bench player along with leading scorer Lawrence Westbrook.
The Gophers are 1-1 since the change, and just might need a deep run in the Big Ten tournament to salvage their NCAA Tournament hopes. The loss at home to Michigan in the regular-season finale just may have been crushing to their tournament hopes.
Minnesota’s season has unraveled: Westbrook’s 3-pointer at the buzzer against Michigan seemed to send the game to overtime, where a victory would have solidified an NCAA bid. But Smith had called timeout before the shot, nullifying the basket and the victory. Westbrook’s ensuing attempt coming out of the timeout missed everything — much like Minnesota’s second half to the season.
Under Tubby Smith, the Gophers are 25-2 when leading entering the final five minutes of a game.
Under Smith, the Gophers are 26-3 when they attempt more free throws than their opponent.
Everyone recalls Blake Hoffabrber’s last-second heroics in the 2008 Big Ten tournament. The Gophers are looking for more scoring from the frontcourt this time around. That means Damian Johnson and Ralph Sampson must bear more of the offensive burden.
G Lawrence Westbrook’s production is typically a fairly accurate gauge of how the Gophers fare. The Michigan loss was just the second time this year Minnesota lost a game when Westbrook led it in scoring. The Gophers are now 9-2 in such games.
G Al Nolen has 134 assists this season, giving him 248 for his career. That leaves him 20 assists shy of 10th place on Minnesota’s all-time list.
Freshman G Devoe Joseph received the first start of his career against Wisconsin on March 4. In two starts now, Joseph has totaled six points on 2 of 7 shooting, five rebounds and three assists.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — G Blake Hoffarber, G Devoe Joseph, F Damian Johnson, F Ralph Sampson III, C Colton Iverson. Key Subs — G Lawrence Westbrook, G Al Nolen, F Paul Carter, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, G/F Travis Busch, G Devron Bostick.
IN FOCUS: The Wildcats are dangerous, mainly because they can control the tempo on both ends of the court. Particularly maddening to league foes this season has been the 1-3-1 zone defense, a look most could figure out with a second or third look. Northwestern won’t likely back out of the zone, but could add trapping and matchup-man looks out of the 1-3-1 set.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “At that point in time, you needed a three. A two is something a little different. He hit a jump shot from way out there. I don’t know the chance of that happening. That’s neither here nor there. We lost the game. I decided to call a timeout. That’s what I usually do.” — Coach Tubby Smith, on calling the timeout that negated Lawrence Westbrook’s game-tying basket against Michigan
Illinois 52, Minnesota 41
Minnesota 51, Wisconsin 46
Michigan 67, Minnesota 64
vs. Northwestern, Thursday, March 12 (Big Ten tournament quarterfinal)