In lieu of a yawn-inspiring post about basketball recruiting around the conference, I wanted instead to continue the preview of the 2008-09 men's basketball team. We'ver previously looked at returning juniors and seniors. Today, sophomores.
A sharp-shooter and a defensive stalwart, Minnesota's two sophmores were a big part of the team's turnaround to a 20-win season last year. They provided stability and depth to a backcourt that was in dire need of people who could play competent basketball. Both will play large roles this season.
Al Nolen: A point guard who many questioned at the beginning of last season for myriad reasons, Nolen proved he could be a difference maker. Nolen wasn't great by any means, but he provided a defensive attitude that Tubby Smith's high-pressure style needed.
One specific game comes to mind that sums up Nolen's impact. As the Gophers struggled to do anything in Happy Valley, Nolen emerged at the end of the game with a timely steal, fastbreak and clutch free throws. All season, Nolen showed a remarkable tendency to be able to pick-pocket opposition ball handlers. His pressure defense disrupted offenses and allowed Minnesota to play full-court and trapping defense. He compiled an impressive 64 steals.
As a floor-leader, Nolen was adequate. He struggled at times getting the Gophers into offensive sets, but he did a good job of taking care of the basketball (116 assists vs. 60 turnovers). Where Nolen can grow this season is as an offensive difference-maker. Nolen shot just 32 percent from the field and only 29 percent from 3-point range. His jump shot looked unsure most of the season and it shows with the final numbers.
Nolen is your starting point guard this season and likely keeps that job all season unless injury strikes. He'll continue to be a defensive difference-maker. But if the Gophers are to take strides this season and compete for an NCAA Tournament spot, he'll need to improve his offensive game. That means being somewhat of a scoring threat--whether it's perimeter oriented or comes via penetration. He'll also need to take steps in his ability to create for others. If Nolen can shoot a better percentage from outside, he'll have the ability to drive easier to the basket, thus creating more opportunities for others.
Blake Hoffarber: Mr. ESPY, Hoffarber clearly has a knack for the big moment. We all remember the buzzer-beater against Indiana and his off-his-butt heave as a high schooler. Those highlight reel moments are great, but they aren't what we should judge Hoffarber on.
As a freahman, Hoffarber came in and did what we were told he could do. After one year, Hoffarber is currently second all-time in Minesota in 3-point shooting percentage (42.7). His 70 three-pointers last year were the fourth most in Minnesota history. Clearly, Hoffarber can make the open three.
But half of his double-digit scoring games came during the non-conference slate when Minnesota was facing athletically inferior defneses. When Big Ten play came around, some quicker defenses were ability to neutralize Hoffarber. And that's where the Hopkins graduate needs to improve this season. Reports have come in that he has bulked up physically. But his biggest obstacle to becoming a well-rounded offensive player is his quickness, or lack thereof.
Hoffarber struggles creating his own shot. His ball-handling is fine, but he demonstrated no ability last year to take the ball to the basket. If he hasn't been working on his first step to the basket all summer I will be disappointed.
This year, I expect Hoffarber to come off the bench as a sixth-man, instant-offense type of player. If Devron Bostick isn't ready to start and while Damian Johnson is out, Hoffarber could well start. But I'd prefer to see him as a bench player, unless he's been able to add a component to his game during the offseason.