Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nice Comeback Game For Gopher Pucksters

One night after being blown off the Yost Arena ice by Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Gopher hockey team put together a fine effort against #6 Michigan State on Saturday night. Holding a 1-0 lead late in the third period, the Gophers allowed a Michigan State goal with 3:25 remaining, only to receive a game-winner from struggling senior winger Mike Carman less than a minute later to give the Gophers a 2-1 win in the College Hockey Showcase.

Sophomore goaltender Kent Patterson was brilliant in this game, stopping 37 of 38 Michigan State shots. Patterson rebounded nicely from his nightmarish appearance against Bemidji State in which he allowed four goals on ten shots in relief of starter Alex Kangas two weeks ago. Patterson picked up his first victory in 11 appearances in maroon and gold, and improved his save percentage to .898 on the season.

The Gophers peppered MSU goaltender Drew Palmisano -- who was spectacular --with 42 shots on the night. Jordan Schroeder's goal from Nico Sacchetti 3:32 into the second period broke a scoreless tie, and it looked like it may have ended that way. Michigan State's Andrew Rowe's goal pumped some life into the Munn Ice Arena crew and it looked as if the Spartans were going to be able to steal a point from the Gophers. However, Carman's goal less than a minute later prevented any Spartan point.

More importantly, the victory broke Minnesota's four-game losing streak. The fine effort came directly on the heels of the team's worst performance of the season. 

Gopher Nation should be able to ease off coach Don Lucia and his crew for a while after this effort. The Gophs are set for a home-and-home series against Minnesota State next weekend: at Mariucci Arena on Friday night and in Mankato on Saturday. The Mavericks are 6-7-1 on the season, but did sweep Michigan Tech at home last weekend. Michigan Tech is the Gophers' next opponent after MSU before the team takes three weeks off for the holidays. 

With some momentum going into the holidays, the Gophers will be in a position to put the early-season struggles behind them. Saturday night in East Lansing was a start, but the effort needs to continue against Minnesota State next weekend. If the effort is not there next weekend, the howls will begin anew. 

Elsewhere around the league:

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Poor Shooting Dooms Gopher Cagers

Portland is earning itself quite a reputation this young season.

One night after blasting UCLA in the opening round of the 76 Classic, the Pilots used a tough man-to-man defense and held the Gopher basketball team to just 33.3% shooting to score a 61-56 victory over Minnesota. Portland heads to the championship game against top-10 West Virginia, while the Gophers will face Texas A&M on Sunday in the third place tilt.

Minnesota simply could not get its shooting game going all night long. Transition basketball was also a problem for the Gophers. Although the Gophers forced 19 Portland turnovers (against 10 of their own), fast break points were at a minimum all night long thanks to Portland's transition defense. Ultimately, poor shooting, and a deep hold dug in the second half, doomed Minnesota's chances.

Minnesota trailed by 11 points with 6:30 remaining in the second half before embarking on a 9-0 run, led by junior guard Al Nolen. The Minneapolis Henry grad had his finest game of the season, picking up 13 points (including 7-9 from the charity stripe), attacking the basket in the second half, and playing shutdown defense. Lawrence Westbrook and Devoe Joseph had 11 points apiece for the struggling offensive attack.

T.J. Campbell led the Pilots with a season-high 23 points, while Robin Smeulders added 13. It's not like the Pilots shot the lights out of the ball themselves (39.1% from the floor and 32% from beyond the arc), but they won the three-point battle 8-25 against just 3-19 for the Gophers. Portland came into the game shooting almost 60% from three-point range, so give the Gophers credit for forcing the Pilots into some bad looks.

If the Gophers had managed to shoot consistently in the game's final minutes (the Gophers missed their last eight shots from the floor), they would have escaped with a victory. However, the absence of consistency led directly to the loss.

Losing to Portland is not catastrophic by any measure. Portland has now beaten Oregon, UCLA, and the Gophers in this young season and should get some top-25 consideration. The problem is that the same issues which plagued the Gophers in Big Ten play last season - inconsistent shooting (especially three-point shooting) and limited transition opportunities - were apparent Friday night. Tubby Smith's crew will need to work on these issues before Big Ten play starts if this squad is to contend for a league title.

A good time to start is Sunday afternoon against a tough Texas A&M team.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Gophers Throttled by Michigan

The Gopher hockey team entered play in the College Hockey Showcase tournament on a three-game losing streak and off to a disappointing start in the WCHA. Their opponent on Friday night, Michigan, was in the midst of losing five out of six games, including four in a row at venerable Yost Arena, and was off to a slow start in the CCHA. After Friday's game, only Michigan is left feeling better about themselves.

Michigan thoroughlly dominated play and thumped Minnesota 6-0. The Wolverines controlled the play from the onset and were kept from making it a laugher earlier than it ended up thanks to the solid first period play of Minnesota goaltender Alex Kangas. The junior netminder stopped 14 of 15 Michigan shots in the opening stanza, as the Wolverines outshot the Gophers 15-5. Michigan kept applying the pressure in the second period, outshooting Minny 12-9, but finding the back of the net three times. They scored twice more in the third period to take the game.

Carl Hagelin scored twice for Michigan, and Louie Caporusso and Ben Winnett added a goal and an assist apiece to pace Michigan. Struggling Wolverines' goaltender Bryan Hogan was perfect in the nets, turning aside all 24 Gopher shots.

Kangas surrendered all six goals. Kevin Wehrs and Jake Hansen were each -3 tonight for the Gophers, and captain Tony Lucia was -2. It was a bad night all around for the maroon and gold.

The Gophers have now lost four in a row and the road gets no less difficult. Minnesota will head to East Lansing for a date with Michigan State Saturday night. The Spartans were throttled by Wisconsin 7-3 (Hastings native Derek Stepan had a goal and four assists for Bucky in this one) at home Friday evening and will be up for the Gophers.

Gopher Nation is getting a little restless after the latest loss, and this team was embarrassed Friday night in Ann Arbor. For the Gophers to become tournament-worthy, they have to start playing -- or at least looking -- like a tournament-caliber team; something this squad has not looked for the past three weekends. This blogger doesn't like the chances of the team righting the ship against State.

Donny Puck Open Thread

The Gopher hockey team plays at Michigan and Michigan State this weekend in the College Hockey Showcase tournament, also featuring Wisconsin. Rather than me postulating about how big the games are for the Gopher Six but cautioning how it's too early to declare the season lost, let me know what you think. I've put a poll in the upper-left corner of the blog for readers to vote how the series will turn out.

For the record, I like the Gophers Friday night in Ann Arbor against the Wolverines, but hate them Saturday in East Lansing against the red-hot MSU Spartans.

What say you?

Gophers Pass First Real Test

As written earlier in the week, the Gopher basketball team's 3-0 start was impressive but had to be viewed with some measure of caution. The level of competition faced was inferior and the team was still playing somewhat short-handed. After Thursday's 82-73 victory over #10 Butler in the first round of the 76 Classic, which the Star Tribune's Myron Medcalf rightly points out wasn't even that close, shows the potential this team has in 2009-10.

The Gophers dominated just about every aspect of Thursday's game against an excellent team. As Medcalf points out, coach Tubby Smith knew that Butler did not have size to compete with the Gophers, so a lot of minutes were played simultaneously by Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III. Iverson finished with 13 points and 11 boards (11 points and 10 rebounds in the first half alone) in his finest performance of the young season. Sampson struggled (0-3 from the floor; 4-8 from the stripe down the stretch), but helped clog the middle with Iverson. Senior Damien Johnson led the way with 18 points on 7-8 shooting. Devoe Joseph (14 points) and Blake Hoffarber (12 points) also hit double-figures for Minnesota.

Minnesota shot 50% for the game, held Butler to just 33.3% shooting from the floor, out-rebounded the Bulldogs 34-32, had its bench out-score Butler's 46-8, and forced 21 Butler turnovers.

Matt Howard led Butler with 23 points, including a staggering 15-18 from the foul line, many of which in a whistle-happy second half. Shelvin Mack added 20 points for the Bulldogs.

My stated key to the game, freshman sensation Rodney Williams, played a grand total of three minutes due to early foul trouble. My record of prognostication continues intact.

Next up for the Gophers is a match-up Friday night against Portland in the second round of the 76 Classic. Portland dismantled UCLA Thursday night 74-47, and will be a tough test for the Gophers. The Pilots are 4-0 and sport wins over Oregon and UCLA on the young season. Portland relies on the three-point shot and came into Thursday's game against UCLA hitting over 50% from beyond the arc. Against UCLA, Portland shot 11 for 19. They also held UCLA to 33% shooting in the game.

The Gophers will need to play some perimeter defense against a tough Portland team in order to advance. Tubby Smith will have this group ready to go Friday night, and the Gophers definitely should advance.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Good Test Ahead for Gopher Cagers

After three blowouts against second-rate opponents, the Gopher basketball team heads out west to meet its first real challenges of the 2009-10 season. Thursday's opener in the 76 Classic in Anaheim pits the Gophers against #10 Butler.

The Gophers, ranked #16 in this week's USA Today/ESPN poll, have rolled over inferior competition thus far. Against Tennessee Tech, Stephen F. Austin, and Utah Valley, Minnesota has rolled by an average score of 82-48 and has displayed solid hustle and defense one would expect from Tubby Smith-coached teams. Freshman forward Rodney Williams has impressed thus far, averaging 15 points and 3 boards in his first collegiate action. Part of the heralded recruiting class Smith obtained for this season, Williams was rated behind fellow freshman Royce White in many circles, but White's indefinite suspension has opened the door for Williams to display his tremendous athletic skills. Also impressive thus far has been the play of sophomore guard Devoe Joseph. Often erratic in his freshman season, Joseph has averaged 10 points, 2.7 assists, and 2.3 rebounds this young season. Seniors Lawrence Westbrook (18.5 points) and Damian Johnson (11.7 points, 3.7 assists, 3.0 rebounds) have provided exactly what could have been expected from team leaders, and sophomore Ralph Sampson III (8.7 points, 8.0 boards) and junior Paul Carter (7 points, 4.7 rebounds) have also been solid. The Gophers have not missed suspended players White, Trevor Mbakwe, or Devron Bostick much this season. However, with the level of competition improving, having those three in the mix would be nice.

Horizon League power Butler also enters play 3-0. However, the three games have been struggles for the Bulldogs. After rallying for a season-opening victory over a Stephon Curry-less Davidson club, Butler struggled against Northwestern before beating the Cats in Evanston and then survived against Evansville Saturday night. Of course, two of those three victories came on the road, which represents reality for a mid-major. Butler is basically an eight-man team who relies on a balanced scoring attack with an attacking defense. Sophomores Gordon Hayward (15.3 points; 8 boards) and Shelvin Mack (13 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds) lead the Bulldogs' scoring attack, and Willie Veasley and Matt Howard each have averaged 9.7 points per game in this young season.

Butler will represent a good early-season test for this Gopher club. Minnesota is definitely the most athletic team Butler has seen thus far and will pose many problems for the Bulldogs. If Rodney Williams can get any room whatsoever to attack the basket, he would have a huge game for Minnesota, and the 76 Classic could be his national coming-out party. Westbrook's and Johnson's experience also should help carry Minnesota over a less-experience Butler squad. Athleticism should win out in the 76 Classic opener, and this is definitely a game the Gophers should win.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Gophers Bitten By 'Dogs

The Gopher hockey team played well in its weekend series against UMD yet came away with nothing. On both nights, the Gophers saw 2-0 leads evaporate; Friday into a 4-3 OT loss and Saturday in a 3-2 defeat. The Gophers have now lost three in a row, are 2-4 for the month, and have two tough road games remaining in a difficult November.

The Gophers got going Friday night with two even strength goals by Jordan Schroeder and Jake Hansen within the first five minutes of the second period, UMD's potent power play started the comeback. Jack Connolly netted his eighth of the season with the man advantage just over two minutes later, and Cody Danberg tied it with just over four minutes remaining in the second period.

UMD took the lead in the third as Jack Connolly scored his second of the night. The Gophers tied it late in the period on a goal by Nico Sacchetti with just 2:19 remaining in the game. It looked like the two teams were going to play to a tie, but UMD's Travis Oleksuk won it with 12 seconds remaining in the overtime period to give the first game to the 'Dogs.

On Saturday, the Gophers stormed out to a 2-0 lead in the first period behind an even strength goal by Mike Hoeffel and a two-man power play tally by Kevin Wehrs. Minnesota got themselves into trouble by taking three consecutive penalties after the Wehrs tally and put the potent Bulldogs' power play on the ice far too many times. Tony Lucia was stopped on a short-handed breakaway early in the second period which would have given the Gophers a seemingly-insurmountable 3-0 lead. Instead, Minny took another penalty and Jack Connolly scored his third goal of the weekend into an open net. Kyle Schmidt scored on a laser beam from long range just over three minutes into the third period to tie the score. The 'Dogs looked to take the lead midway through the period as the puck went into the net following a scrum, but official replay was inconclusive. However, with just over two minutes remaining in regulation, Mike Montgomery's pass bounced off Gopher defensemen Cade Fairchild and Brian Schack and snuck into the Gopher net to give UMD the victory and the weekend sweep.

UMD has now won seven of a possible eight points at Mariucci Arena over the past two seasons.

Alex Kangas was not sharp on Friday night for the Gophers, stopping 28 of 32 but was out of position several times. He played much better on Saturday, but the second UMD goal was from a long way out. He still turned aside 30 UMD shots in the Saturday game. Kenny Reiter picked up the victory for the Bulldogs and turned away 26 Minnesota shots, including 12 in a busy third period. Brady Hjelle picked up the start Saturday and was spectacular, stopping 36 of 38 Minnesota shots.

The Gophers now have to travel to Michigan to play the Wolverines on Friday night and the red-hot Michigan State Spartans on Saturday. The Gophers can take solace in the fact that they played well both nights against UMD, but will need to start piling up victories soon. However, it's far too early to push the panic button on this season and declare it a lost cause.

Elsewhere in the League:

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Defense Steps Up; Offense Disappears

To have any chance of defeating #13 Iowa at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, the Gopher football team knew it had to play much better defensively. Certainly, they would have to improve upon last season's effort, in which the Gophers were steamrolled 55-0 in the final game at the Metrodome, but things couldn't have been any worse. The Gophers received the tremendous defense effort they needed to pull the upset on Saturday. The problem was the offense simply couldn't move the ball. The end result: a 12-0 Iowa victory.

The defensive numbers were spectacular, limiting Iowa to the following:
  • 12 points
  • 12 first downs
  • 1 of 13 on third down opportunities
  • 171 total yards on 60 offensive plays
  • Forced two turnovers
  • Recorded four QB sacks
Those numbers represent the finest Gopher defensive performance in several seasons. However, the Hawkeyes kept Floyd of Rosedale for the seventh time in eight seasons because of offensive ineptitude. Consider the following:
  • 13 first downs
  • 48 rushing yards on a staggering 36 carries (1.3 yards, NET!)
  • 14 of 42 passing for a measly 153 yards
  • Allowed five QB sacks
  • Threw a costly interception and lost two fumbles - one inside the Iowa 15 yard line with the score 3-0
  • Two trips inside the Iowa 15 yard-line and no points
  • Shut out twice in the same season since 1986
  • Scoreless in last two games against Iowa, outscored 67-0
The Gopher defense deserved a better fate today than that received, thanks to the poor play of QB Adam Weber (14 of 40, 153 yards), his receivers, and, most importantly, the offensive line. Weber is not without fault, but he was running for his life all game long. When he did have time to throw, his receivers found ways to drop the pass or run the wrong routes. Weber lost two fumbles and played like the inexperienced freshman, James Vandenberg, on the other side of the ball for Iowa.

ABC broadcaster Bob Griese had a good point in the fourth quarter. While criticizing Weber for making mistakes a three-year starter should no longer make, he called out the offensive line. He stated they are soft, that they need to lose weight, and get stronger. I couldn't agree more. If the Gophers are to have any chance to win at all, they must have a running attack. Even spread teams like Purdue and Northwestern have better rushing games than the Gophers. For next season, the first area of improvement must, must, must be on the offensive line. Of course, the same could have been said twelve months ago.

Coach Tim Brewster drops to 0-6 all-time against Iowa and Wisconsin with Saturday's loss. This one will sting for a while, because the Gophers had it for the taking. Instead of pulling an upset which would have positioned themselves for a better bowl game while knocking Iowa out of BCS consideration, the Gophers now finish 6-6 (3-5 in the Big Ten), and have yet another second-tier position in conference play. Of course, if they had taken care of business against Illinois two weeks ago, we would not be having this conversation.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Chance For Redemption

The Gopher football team heads to Iowa this weekend to close out the 2009 regular season. The campaign opened with great fanfare as the team's new on-campus home helped energize a dormant fan base (for at least one game). Offensive struggles and injuries to senior WR Eric Decker and on the offensive line quickly sent the season spiraling toward mediocrity and fired up the critics of coach Tim Brewster. The low point was a two-game stretch in which the Gophers lost games at Penn State and Ohio State and were out-scored 58-7.

Brewster is not without fault this season. Although he does not coach the offense, he deserves some of the blame for Jedd Fisch's offensive unit's struggles. His willingness to fire spread guru and coordinator Mike Dunbar after last season and install more of a hybrid attack with Fisch has been met with mixed results. There is certainly the good (the Michigan State game in which the Gophers scored 42 points and ran up over 500 yards), and then the bad (the two-game stretch outlined above and last week's no-TD attack against South Dakota State). The instability of coordinators is but one reason why QB Adam Weber has regressed in each of the past two seasons. Weber is also not blameless in this respect, but a porous offensive line deserves some culpability as well.

With all of this as background, the Gophers are bowl-eligible going into the Iowa game at 6-5. Seven Big Ten teams are eligible for post-season play, and only Michigan can qualify next week, and all they have to do is beat Ohio State. This year's schedule was certainly tougher than last year's campaign which saw the Gophers sprint out to a 7-1 start, only to lose their final five contests. The 2009 edition featured the SDSU game, but Syracuse, Air Force, and California was a much tougher non-conference slate than last year's version with Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, Montana State, and Florida Atlantic. The Gophers' win at Northwestern looks pretty good now, but the loss at home against Illinois looks even worse than it did a week ago. If the Gophers had won that game, going to Iowa City 7-4 instead of 6-5 may have silenced a critic or two. The team is erratic, yet athletic, and there is progress in this program. Still, without a victory in the season's final game, the season will be viewed as one of mediocrity.

Iowa will not win the Big Ten this season after losing last weekend at Ohio State. The Hawkeyes have enjoyed a Cinderella season in 2009, winning all nine of their games in come-from-behind fashion. However, a loss two weeks ago at home against Northwestern and last weekend's at Ohio State turned the season into a pumpkin. Starting QB Ricky Stanzi is out for the season with an ankle injury, but the Hawkeyes still have much for which to play this weekend, even if a berth in the Rose Bowl is no longer at stake.

The Hawkeyes are 9-2 (5-2 in the conference) and are coming off consecutive losses. They were the cardiac kids early in the season and scored impressive wins against Arizona, Penn State, and Wisconsin. Stanzi's loss stung Iowa, but his freshman backup, James Vandenberg (pictured right), was solid in the Ohio State game last week (20 of 33, 233 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT) and has a gun of an arm. Iowa is down to its third-string running back, but Adam Robinson has gained 703 yards from scrimmage this season. The receivers are led by Marvin McNutt (29 catches, 625 yards, 7 TD) and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (34 catches for 624 yards, 2 TD). The name of Iowa's game, however, is defense. The front four are very solid, and it will be extremely difficult for the Gophers to be able to establish a running attack - not that they've been willing to do this all season.

Knocking off Iowa would likely save Brewster's job (not that he is in jeopardy, anyway), or at least silence the critics for a week. Due to circumstances beyond their control, they may avoid the Little Caesar's Bowl in Detroit anyway, but beating Iowa would likely move them out of consideration for this game altogether. They'll need to play far better than they have all season to beat Iowa. Coach Brewster needs a trophy win, and capturing Floyd of Rosedale in Iowa City would be nice.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Here Come the Dogs!

The UMD Bulldogs made an improbable run in the post-season last year, thanks largely to the play of one man.

Goaltender Alex Stalock provided one of the more memorable performances in Final Five history, starting three games and allowing a grand total of one goal. The Bulldogs beat the Gophers in the play-in game on Thursday night (and Stalock allowed his only goal on a deflection in that game), and the proceeded to shut out North Dakota on Friday and Denver on Saturday to give UMD the Broadmoor Trophy and become the only team to win that trophy from the play-in game spot. The Bulldogs drew a #2 seed in the NCAA West Regional at Mariucci Arena and faced-off against Princeton in the semi-finals. The Tigers held a 4-2 lead with less than a minute to go. Jack Connolly cut the deficit to 4-3 with 40 seconds remaining, and defenseman Evan Oberg's desperation shot at the net with less than a second remaining forced an improbable tie. Mike Connolly won it almost 14 minutes into overtime, and the Bulldogs escaped in classic Houdini fashion. The luck ran out the next night against Miami, but the Bulldogs had a run for the ages.

Stalock and Oberg left for the NHL shortly thereafter, and the Bulldogs found themselves with virtually no returning experience in goal. Sophomore Brady Hjelle (pictured left) had played in two games last season, and had the only collegiate experience of any goaltender on the roster. Junior Kenny Reiter had spent his first two seasons as the third goaltender on a squad which played only Stalock. UMD knew it would be fine up front, but had questions in the nets. Hjelle and Reiter have responded well thus far in 2009-10. Hjelle has played in eight games and has sported a 5-2-1 record with a 2.97 GAA and .903 Sv%. Not to be outdone, Reiter has gone 2-2-0 in his five games with a GAA of 2.33 and a Sv% of .907. 

Of course, when you have an offensive attack like the 'Dogs have shown this season, goaltending gets easier. UMD features #s 2-5 in terms of WCHA scoring with Justin Fontaine (pictured right), Jack Connolly, Rob Bordson, and Mike Connolly. Each has scored 10 points in league play this season, and each would lead the Gophers in points. Overall, Fontaine (11-7-18), Jack Connolly (7-11-18), Bordson (3-14-17), and Mike Connolly (5-8-13) all rank among the national leaders in points. In addition to these four, UMD has picked up solid production from defenseman Brady Lamb (5-3-8) and senior centerman Drew Akins (2-5-7). Highly-touted freshman defenseman Dylan Olsen (0-6-6) has also started his college career well from the blueline.

The Gophers need to block out Sunday's debacle against Bemidji State and return to basics. Jordan Schroeder, Nico Sacchetti, Mike Carman, and Aaron Ness each notched his first goal of the season last weekend and the offense is beginning to show signs of life. Goaltender Alex Kangas has shown he is not responsible for the team's inconsistent play this season, notching a 4-3-0 record but with a 2.24 GAA and .929 Sv%. The team's defense should be an area of concern. Giveaways, including David Fischer's silver-platter which led to the first BSU goal on Sunday night, have been frequent this season, and the corps has allowed far too many shots on net. The group is also thin with Nick Leddy's continued absence due to injury and Sam Lofquist's departure from the team. With the high-scoring Bulldogs coming to town, this could pose many problems for the struggling Gopher defense.

The Bulldogs' potent power play will also pose problems for the Gophers this weekend. The 'Dogs power play has clicked on 22 of 83 opportunities this season for an impressive 26.5% success rate. The Gophers' penalty kill had been great until the Sunday night Bemidji State game, but this should be a good matchup for the weekend.

UMD comes into Mariucci Arena fresh off a home split with Michigan Tech. After the Huskies surprised them on Friday night, the 'Dogs punished MTU 8-1 on Saturday. UMD is 7-4-1 on the season and 4-3-1 in the WCHA. Last season, the two teams played just one series, and the Bulldogs picked up a win and a tie against the Gophers in Minneapolis in late February. The teams also met in the WCHA Final Five play-in game described earlier. All-time, the Gophers hold a significant edge in the series, going 127-68-13 in a rivalry which dates back to 1952.

The Gophers know they'll need to be great this weekend in order to pick up at least a split and they'll definitely have to play much better than they did against Bemidji State last weekend. Although the play wasn't horrible against BSU, the Gophers were prone to stretches of mediocrity and careless play, which often led to goals against. The Bulldogs are far too powerful to let those mistakes slip. Kangas needs to be huge in the nets this weekend for the Gophers to have a chance.

UMD Schedule, Team Stats, Roster
UM Schedule, Team Stats, Roster
Donny Puck Prediction: Split

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Gophers Punish Stephen F. Austin

The Gopher basketball team survived a slow start and blew the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin off the Williams Arena floor Monday night with an 82-42 victory in the team's second non-conference game of the season.

With the Gophers down one point with just over nine minutes remaining in the first half, the Gophers started a 33-5 run which concluded midway through the second half and never looked back. The Gophers closed the first half with a 12-2 run and opened the second half by scoring the first 16 points.

Minnesota shot a pedestrian 45.5% in the first half and then a sizzling 61.3% in the second half, including 8-12 from beyond the arc. The tough defense held the Lumberjacks to 30% shooting for the game and forced 19 turnovers. Coach Tubby Smith cannot be happy with his team's 15 turnovers' however.

The Gophers had four players reach double-figures for the game, led by sophomore Devoe Joseph, who continued his fine start with 15 points on 5-7 shooting (3-3 on three-point attempts) and senior Lawrence Westbrook also with 15 (6-10 shooting, including 3-5 from three-point range). Freshman Rodney Williams pitched-in 14, including 2-3 on three-point attempts. Senior Damian Johnson had 11 points.

Stephen F. Austin qualified for the NCAA Tournament one season ago, but was no match for the athletic Gophers. Next up for Minnesota is Utah Valley at Williams Arena on Thursday night. After that game, the Gophers head west for more stiff competition and the "76 Classic" Thanksgiving tournament, in which Minnesota will face Butler in the opening game and either UCLA or Portland in the next. It will be a good test for a team which has shown a staggering amount of athleticism in this early season. 

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sunday's Onslaught Leaves Gophers Feeling Hollow

The Gophers headed into their weekend series with #7 Bemidji State as the underdog - at least if one looked at the national rankings. The unbeaten Beavers were ranked seventh in both national polls, while the Gophers could not crack either one. With tough weekend series ahead in November, Minnesota desperately needed two good efforts against BSU to give them some confidence. They received one decent effort and one total collapse.

Saturday night's opener featured the Gophers seemingly lulling themselves to sleep. However, they came alive late in the second period and killed off four consecutive penalties and used the momentum to score a 4-1 victory. On Sunday night, the Beavers took advantage of some Minnesota turnovers and defensive lapses, and notched three goals in 1:28 in the third period to skate away with a 6-2 win.

After spotting the Beavers a quick 1-0 lead in the first period Saturday, Minny tied the game with a goal by sophomore Nick Sacchetti. Mike Hoeffel's marker four minutes into the second period gave the Gophers a lead, but their level of play was not high until the man-advantage situations midway through the second period. The Gophers flew all over the ice from that point forward and dominated the Beavers in the latter half of the third period. Goals by Jordan Schroeder and Mike Carman cemented the victory. For Sacchetti, Schroeder, and Carman, Saturday's goals were each forward's first of the season. Cade Fairchild and Aaron Ness each notched two assists from the blue line.

On Sunday, the Gophers controlled the play early on, but defenseman David Fischer's errant pass led directly to Shea Walters' goal to give the Beavers a 1-0 lead. BSU made it 2-0 when Matt Read was allowed to hold the puck seemingly forever. The Gophers cut the deficit to one when Schroeder scored a power play marker in the second period, but Jamie MacQueen scored a power play tally at 16:11 to push the deficit back to two goals. Then came the onslaught in the third period.

BSU's Brad Hunt scored on a power play to make it 4-1 at 1:38, and added goals by MacQueen at 1:52 and Aaron MacLeod at 3:04 to push the lead to 6-1. Jake Hansen's goal midway through the third provided the final score of 6-2, and the game ended with a whimper. 

Alex Kangas received Saturday's start and continued his fine play of late. He stopped 21 Bemidji State shots and picked up his fourth victory of the season. He was yanked by coach Don Lucia after the first period on Sunday after allowing two goals on four shots, but was re-inserted in the third period after Kent Patterson was hammered for four goals on ten shots. The Gophers had been going with Kangas' hot hand in six consecutive starts, and Patterson's rust showed Sunday. The defense did little to help Patterson in the three-goal outburst of the third period, but Patterson didn't help his cause much either.

The real star of Saturday's game was the Gophers' penalty kill. Going into Saturday's game, the Gophs were on a 19-kill streak and continued that streak by going 4-4 on Saturday. The streak ended Sunday after BSU went 2-5. The struggling power play, which had been 2 for 35 for the season going into the weekend, clicked for 2 of 7 on Saturday and 2-6 on Sunday.

After the disappointment on Sunday, it's time for the Gophers to right the ship as the high-scoring UMD Bulldogs come to town for a weekend set. The Bulldogs feature four of the five top scorers in conference play, with Justin Fontaine, Mike Connolly, Rob Bordson, and Jack Connolly each recording at least 10 points. It'll be a tough draw for the Gophers who are struggling - and are thin - on the blue line.

Elsewhere in the league over the weekend:

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Late Field Goal Prevents Complete Embarrassment

The Gopher football team defeated South Dakota State on Saturday. But then again, they were supposed to do this, so it's not newsworthy that the Gophers won. How they won deserves some scrutiny and will fuel the angst of Gopher Nation for the entire week leading up to next weekend's season finale against Iowa.

Eric Ellestad's field goal with 2:22 remaining in the fourth quarter gave the Gophers a 16-13 lead, and they stopped SDSU on four consecutive downs on the ensuing possession to preserve the victory. Still, a crowd which huddled together seemingly intent to boo at the slightest provocation was not impressed - nor should they have been.

Consider the following:
  • 231 total offensive yards against a FCS (formerly 1-AA) team
  • 3-16 on third downs
  • Gopher QB Adam Weber was 10-21 for a paltry 94 yards, no TDs, and one pick which was returned for a TD by South Dakota State. He threw a pick which went the other way last weekend against Illinois as well
  • The game featured no offensive touchdowns from either side - first time since 1964 that this has occurred
  • The offensive line allowed four sacks to SDSU on Saturday
  • The special teams allowed SDSU an average of 37 yards on kickoff returns and 14 yards on punt returns, including one long return in each situation
The offense is struggling to put it mildly. The Gophers ranked 106th of 120 FBS teams going into the game, and that will drop after Saturday's performance. Adam Weber was bad again on Saturday, but not all blame needs to be put his way. The offensive line play was putrid on Saturday and was so last weekend in the loss to Illinois. Weber did not help his cause by his indecisions, his short-hopping of receivers, and certainly by his pick-six to SDSU's Derek Domino which was returned 22 yards to give the Jackrabbits a 10-6 lead in the second quarter.

On the positive side of the ledger - and it's all defense-related:
  • Held SDSU to 229 total yards, including just 46 net rushing yards
  • Michael Carter's sack of South Dakota State QB Thomas O'Brien led to a fumble, which was returned by D.L. Willhite to put the Gophers back on top in the second quarter
  • Held SDSU to 3-16 on third down
  • Forced three turnovers
The defense performed as should have been expected against inferior competition. The offense, on the other hand, dipped to the level of competition. Simply put, Jedd Fisch's offensive unit is really reeling right now. One can easily blame the loss of WR Eric Decker, and his loss cannot be discounted. However, they were struggling with Decker in the lineup. Fisch has not been able to get a cohesiveness of his charges all season long and it has shown up in the scoresheet.

Coach Tim Brewster will catch his share of heat this week in the lead-up to Iowa. The Gophers should have defeated the Jackrabbits by two touchdowns, given the way SDSU played offensively. The critics will point to this game and make comparisons to the games against North Dakota State in 2006 and 2007, and they won't be happy about having to squeak out a win at home against the Jackrabbits. They also will point to how the Gophers should have defeated Illinois a week prior instead of being in their current predicament. Illinois was defeated by Northwestern on Saturday and is now 2-6 in the league. If the Gophers had played a complete game against the Illini, they'd be heading into Iowa at 7-4 and have their sights set on a much better bowl game than the one currently staring at them.

The Gophers are now 6-5 and are bowl-eligible heading into the season finale with Iowa. The Hawkeyes will face the Gophers with a backup QB under center and no chance at the Big Ten title after losing to Ohio State on Saturday. The Gophers should theoretically be up for this game. If they need any sort of motivation, keep the following two points in mind.
  1. The Gophers should be looking to avenge last season's 55-0 thrashing in the last Gopher football game played under the Metrodome
  2. A win at Iowa City next weekend will likely keep the Gophers out of any bowl game played in the city of Detroit.

Gopher Cagers Rout Tennessee Tech in Opener

The nationally-ranked Gopher basketball team put aside its off-court difficulties Friday night and overcame a somewhat sluggish start to close strong in an 87-50 victory over Tennessee Tech in the 2009-10 season opener at Williams Arena.

The Gophers used a 9-1 run to close the first half with a 15-point advantage and then proceeded to out-score TTU 50-28 in the final 20 minutes.

Senior Lawrence Westbrook paced the Gophers with 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting, including 4-for-7 beyond the arc. The 22 points were Westbrook's highest total since his 29 in last season's improbable comeback victory over Wisconsin in Madison. Freshman Rodney Williams was the only other Gopher to hit double-figures, and his athleticism was prominently displayed Friday night.

Williams dazzled the Gopher faithful with some spectacular dunks and also picked up two steals and blocked two shots. His enthusiasm and hustle on both ends of the court will endear himself to the partisan crowd all season long if Friday was any indication.

Coach Tubby Smith played his entire squad Friday and freshman Justin Cobbs was the only one not to break into the scoring column. Senior Damian Johnson, junior Paul Carter, and sophomore Ralph Sampson III each had 9 points in a balanced scoring attack.

The Gophers also played solid defense on the other end, holding Tennessee Tech to 28.3% shooting from the floor and forcing a staggering 27 turnovers. The Gopher defense may be the most under-rated aspect of this team, and they certainly displayed quickness and athleticism on the defensive end all night long.

Next up for Minnesota is Stephen F. Austin on Monday night at Williams Arena, as the Gophers look to move to 2-0 on what promises to be a solid season for the maroon and gold, off-court issues aside.

A Preview of Seasons to Come

Bemidji State will come to Mariucci Arena for a non-conference series against the Gopher hockey team this weekend as a ranked team. In fact, they are the higher-ranked team by a long shot.

The Beavers have flown out to a 7-0-1 start this season and are ranked #7 in this week's and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls. BSU is fresh off an unlikely appearance in the 2008-09 NCAA Frozen Four, has a brand new arena in the works up in Bemidji to replace the aging Glas Fieldhouse, and will join the WCHA as a full member next season. Like is good for the Beavers.

BSU plays in the lame-duck College Hockey America (CHA) conference, which is shutting down after this season. Only four teams call the CHA home, with Bemidji State joining Alabama-Huntsville, Niagara, and Robert Morris. The Beavers are 4-0-0 in CHA play this season, which is now unexpected. However, the Beavers are an impressive 3-0-1 outside the conference with wins over Air Force (two) and Northern Michigan. BSU will also play non-conference games against major conference teams such as Miami, UMD, Ohio State, Minnesota State, and Nebraska-Omaha.

Despite losing a fair amount of talent from last year's Frozen Four team, most notably star goaltender Matt Dalton, the Beavers have received solid production from a number of sources. Junior forward Matt Read (7-7-14) has been spectacular in the team's first eight games of the season. Sophomore defenseman Brad Hunt (1-9-10) has provided solid production from the blue line, and freshman forward Jordan George (4-5-9) has his collegiate career off to a solid start. In fact, each of those three players would lead the Gopher team in scoring.

In goal, sophomore Dan Bakala has been spectacular in his seven starts, allowing just 10 goals in total. He has posted a 6-0-1 record, including one shutout, with a 1.40 goals against average and .946 save percentage. His backup, freshman Mathieu Dugas, has seen action in just one game, but it was a shutout.

Coach Tom Serratore has his team off to a great start this season, but whether or not it will translate into a smooth transition to the WCHA remains to be seen. This weekend will be a good indicator.

The Beavers seem to be catching the Gophers at a good time. The Gophers have struggled to a 3-4-1 start this season, having been shut out in three of the four losses. However, they defeated Wisconsin last Saturday night in a game in which goaltender Alex Kangas stole the game for the Gophers with 45 saves.

The team is also fighting the injury bug. Forward Jay Barriball is out for the season with a knee injury and freshman defenseman Nick Leddy will miss the next five weeks with a broken jaw. Junior forward Mike Hoeffel missed last Saturday's tilt with a virus, but is expected to be back for the BSU series. Sophomore defenseman Sam Lofquist quit the team this past week, which leaves the Gophers with only seven defensemen on the roster, including the injured Leddy. 

The Gophers' offense has struggled to get its bearings thus far, but senior co-captain Tony Lucia is red-hot, compiling 4-5-9 in his past four games after starting the season scoreless in his first four games. Sophomore forward Jordan Schroeder has yet to light the lamp this season, but has compiled 0-5-5 in his past four games. Freshman forward Zach Budish has had a fine last two weekends, compiling 3-1-4, including his first collegiate two-goal game last Saturday at Wisconsin. Still, the Gophers expect the offensive production to be more robust, and the loss of Barriball hurts that notion.

The defense has been spotty all season long, as evidenced by last weekend's 79-shots-against performance in Madison. As noted earlier, the corps will be stretched over the next few weeks until Leddy returns. The goaltending of Kangas (3-3-0; .933 Sv%; 2.35 GAA) and Kent Patterson (0-1-1; .900 Sv%; 2.89 GAA) has kept the games more respectable than they probably should have been.

This is a big weekend for the Gophers. They have tough weekends ahead (vs. UMD; at Michigan; at Michigan State) and cannot overlook what will be a talented and pumped-up Bemidji State team. Gopher fans will know a lot more about this team after the BSU series the weekend.

BSU Schedule, Team Stats, Roster
UM Schedule, Team Stats, Roster
Prediction: Gopher Win, Tie

Friday, November 13, 2009

Suddenly, Season Stems on Jackrabbits' Game

Just one week ago, the Gopher football team was coming off a nice win at home against Michigan State, which is exactly what the program needed after stinkers on consecutive weeks at Penn State and Ohio State. With bottom-feeding Illinois coming to town, the prospects of the Gophers winning that game and becoming bowl-eligible looked good. With a non-conference game against South Dakota State separating the Illinois game from the season finale at Iowa, the Gophers faced a serious possibility of having seven wins in the bank before embarking on a chance to ruin Iowa's season. A win over Iowa would give the Gophers a much better bowl game than last year's Insight Bowl (promo picture provided above with Kansas coach Mark Mangino and Minnesota's Tim Brewster).

Of course, the 35-32 loss against Illinois changed that thinking.

Had the Gophers played 60 minutes instead of 30 last Saturday, the formula described above may well have held true. However, the team dug itself into too big a hole last weekend and they now face a must-win game against the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State. Now, the Insight Bowl is a desirable destination rather than the team setting its sights on more exotic bowl destinations.

SDSU plays in the Missouri Valley Conference, a league far better known as a basketball league than a football conference. The Jackrabbits are 7-2 on the season and are 6-1 in the MVAC. They have scored 245 points this season against only 125 allowed. They have a fine running back in Kyle Minett (193 carries for 947 yards and 12 TDs), as well as two good receivers in Mike Steffen (35 catches, 629 yards, 3TD) and Glen Fox (52 catches, 585 yards, 3 TD). However, one should not have to go through position-by-position breakdowns against bowl subdivision teams.

As poorly as Adam Weber played in the last weekend, he needs a bounceback game against SDSU to gain some confidence before the Iowa finale. He was a shadow of himself compared to the Michigan State game a week prior when he was racking up Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors. The unwillingness of the coaching staff to establishing a running game in the first half led to Weber's struggles. Only after the team came out of halftime trailing 28-7 yet running the ball did the Gophers have a chance to win.

The defense was not terrible last week, but they played worse against Illinois than they did against Michigan State. SDSU has a good running attack, so look for the Gophers to stack the box and try to shut it down. They'll need a good tune-up before facing Iowa next weekend.

The Gophers put themselves in this must-win position with their flat performance against Illinois. The TCF Bank Stadium crowd will be poised for booing as they were after the first series last Saturday, adding to the pressure. Coach Brewster assured the media that the team will be ready to play SDSU this weekend, which I guess is reassuring. Still, this is a game the Gophers must win, and should win. If they lose to SDSU, one cannot imagine the booing and hissing which will be directed at Brewster and his team, and it will be very difficult to make a case for an extension for Brewster.

Prediction: Gophers 35, South Dakota State 14

Thursday, November 12, 2009

This Week in the WCHA

The standings are tight thus far, but it's early!

Everybody is back in action this weekend in the WCHA except Denver, who takes a much-needed week off to prepare for surging North Dakota and contemplate life without goaltender Marc Cheverie for the next few weeks. Eight WCHA teams face off against each other and the Gophers will play host to top-ten-ranked Bemidji State in non-conference play.

Taking a look at the conference match-ups....

Michigan Tech (2-6-0, 1-5-0 in WCHA) at UMD (6-3-1, 3-2-1 in WCHA)
  • The Michigan Tech Huskies head to Duluth to take on the Bulldogs after being swept at home last weekend against North Dakota. UMD is fresh off a weekend split at Colorado College.
  • MTU sophomore forward Brett Olson is off to a great start, netting 4-6-10 in 8 games this season. Not to be out-done is senior captain Malcolm Gwilliam (pictured right), who leads all Huskies with five goals, and has added four assists, for nine points. It is quite a start for Gwilliam, who missed virtually all of last season with a knee injury and also missed the entire 2005-06 campaign due to injury.
  • UMD continues to feature three of the WCHA's top scorers. Sophomore Jack Connolly (6-9-15), and juniors Justin Fontaine (7-6-13) and Rob Bordson (3-10-13) each rank among the top point-getters in the league.
  • Not to go un-noticed has been the solid goaltending provided by UMD's sophomore goaltenders Brady Hjelle (pictured left) and Kenny Reiter. In seven games, Hjelle has sported a 4-2-1 record with a .900 save percentage, while Reiter has actually posted better numbers (.921 save percentage and 2.12 GAA) in his four starts. With Alex Stalock carrying the heavy load for UMD in past seasons, and two inexperienced netminders left behind after Stalock's early departure, the solid goaltending early on has been an added bonus for the Bulldogs.
  • As the Duluth News-Tribune's Kevin Pates reports, UMD has suspended junior defenseman Chad Huttel for Friday's game as a result of his actions in Saturday's loss at Colorado College.
  • The Huskies and Bulldogs hooked-up for two series last season, with UMD winning two games and two contests ending in ties.
  • MTU Schedule, Team Stats, Roster
  • UMD Schedule, Team Stats, Roster
  • Donny Puck Prediction: UMD Sweep 
Colorado College (5-2-1, 4-1-1 in WCHA) at Minnesota State (3-4-1, 1-4-1 in WCHA)
  • Colorado College, fresh off a weekend split at home against UMD, will hit the road and visit the MSU Mavericks this weekend. MSU was idle last weekend after getting one out of a possible four points the weekend prior at Denver.
  • CC's Rylan Schwartz and Bill Sweatt (pictured right) had big series' last weekend against UMD. The freshman Schwartz had 1-2-3 in Saturday's game, and is off to a fine start to his collegiate career (3-7-10). The senior forward Sweatt was 2-2-4 this past weekend and leads the Tigers in scoring with 5-9-14 in 8 games. Junior forward Tyler Johnson (5-5-10) is also off to a fine start up front.  
  • CC's power play has hit at a 34% success rate this season.
  • For MSU, the scoring attack has been balanced so far this season. Junior forward Rylan Galiardi (pictured left) leads the team in scoring with 3-3-6, followed by five players who have amassed five points and four players who have notched four points.
  • All three MSU goaltenders have seen action, and all three have fashioned a .900 save percentage. Sophomore Austin Lee is the most experienced of the group, but freshmen Phil Cook and Kevin Murdock have also seen action.
  • The two teams played two series against each other last season and split the four games. All-time, CC leads the series 25-12-1.
  • CC Schedule, Team Stats, Roster
  • MSU Schedule, Team Stats, Roster
  • Donny Puck Prediction: Split
St. Cloud State (3-3-2, 2-1-1 in WCHA) at North Dakota (6-1-1, 4-1-1 in WCHA)
  • Fresh off a bye week, St. Cloud State ventures north to take on the Fighting Sioux at the Ralph Engelstad Arena. UND is coming off a road sweep last weekend at Michigan Tech.
  • St. Cloud's junior forward Garrett Roe (pictured right) picked up his 100th career point two weeks ago and is tied for the Huskies' lead in scoring this season with 2-6-8. Junior Tony Mosey (3-3-6) shares the team lead with Roe.
  • The play of SCSU's goaltenders has been strong despite the .500 team record. Junior Dan Dunn (1.98 GAA, .924 Sv%) and freshman Mike Lee (2.15 GAA, .924 Sv%) have each been solid.
  • UND junior forward Evan Trupp won the WCHA Offensive Player of the Week honors with three goals at Michigan Tech. He is third in team scoring (4-4-8) behind senior defenseman Chay Genoway (4-6-10) and senior forward Chris VandeVelde (2-7-9).
  • The Grand Forks Herald's Brad Elliott Schlossman reports that sophomore forward Brett Hextall may not play again this weekend after missing last week's series against MTU.
  • The two teams met for two series last season, with the Sioux winning three of four games. UND won both contests last season in Grand Forks.
  • SCSU Schedule, Team Stats, Roster
  • UND Schedule, Team Stats, Roster
  • Donny Puck Prediction: North Dakota Win, Tie
Alaska-Anchorage (4-6-0, 2-4-0 in WCHA) at Wisconsin (4-3-1, 2-3-1 in WCHA)
  • UAA hits the road this week after a home split last weekend against Denver, which was highlighted by an impressive 7-3 thrashing of DU on Saturday night. Wisconsin split against Minnesota in Madison.
  • Alaska-Anchorage continues to be led by senior Kevin Clark (5-3-8) and junior Tommy Grant (2-6-8, and pictured right) this season. The scoring attack has been relatively balanced with seven Seawolves picking up at least five points this season.
  • Wisconsin's Blake Geoffrion had a fine series against Minnesota last week, notching three goals. He leads the Badgers with five goals and is second behind Brendan Smith (2-7-9) in overall scoring with 5-2-7.
  • Wisconsin fired 79 shots on the Minnesota net last weekend and came away with only two points. Junior goaltender Brett Bennett was solid Friday night in the Badgers' victory but was shaky in the Saturday night loss.
  • The two teams met for two series last year, and the Badgers won all four games.
  • UAA Schedule, Team Stats, Roster
  • UW Schedule, Team Stats, Roster
  • Donny Puck Prediction: Wisconsin Sweep

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Hits Keep on Comin'!

As if there wasn't enough negative publicity surrounding the University of Minnesota athletic program, the announcement that freshman basketball forward Royce White is a suspect in an on-campus burglary caps a fine 10 days of brushes with the law. Since Halloween night, the Gophers have been involved in three cases of jurisprudence - two involving White and one involving football player Michael Carter.

Add to this the indefinite suspensions currently being served by White and senior forward Devron Bostick and the inability of newcomer Trevor Mbakwe to participate in basketball-related activities pending resolution of his felony assault charge in Miami, and it's exactly the kind of publicity coach Tubby Smith does not want to have as he and his team prepare for Friday's season opener.

White was arrested and charged with assault in the course of a theft of approximately $100 of merchandise from Macy's at the Mall of America. During the incident, White is charged with pushing a security guard to the ground twice, leading to fifth-degree assault charges. Smith suspended White from the team last week in the wake of these charges. Over the weekend, police were notified of a burglary of a laptop computer at the Territorial Hall dorm facility, and White is being investigated as a possible suspect.

The legal process will need to play itself out in the all cases identified in this article and all individuals should be presumed innocent until a judge and/or jury decide otherwise. However, the brushes with the law have put the Gopher sports' department in the crosshairs in the court of public opinion.

For White, the investigation is another episode in a long line of trouble which has followed him since high school. He was booted from De La Salle High School for academic misconduct and subsequently recruited by (I mean, transferred to) the basketball powerhouse which is Hopkins High School. Hopkins has a veritable traveling program of a basketball team and by all accounts White was a model citizen with the Royals in his one season. He held his commitment to the Gophers for this season and highlighted a fine recruiting class by Smith. The key was White, a 6-8 forward with powerful moves to the basket. 

However, for the second time in as many weeks, Smith now has to address questions of whether or not he has control of his team and whether or not he should have recruited White in the first place. The latter part of that statement is ridiculous. After eight seasons of Dan Monson getting hammered locally for not buttoning-up the local kids, to have White walk away to somewhere else because of a checkered past would have set off howls of discontent among basketball supporters. Smith is now in a tough spot of having to defend a player he is likely disgusted with at this moment, but a player whom Smith knows is a key to his team's chances this season.

The Gophers get their season under way Friday night against Tennessee Tech, and by all accounts it should be a fine season in which the Gophers are ranked in the top 20. By having to answer questions about off-the-court activities, the program's season will open under a cloud of controversy.