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Before he makes the move, you'd swear Minnesota's Miles Tarver is about to fall asleep. He's just beneath the hoop, staring down at the paint, feet flat in the lane, shoulders sagging. Sometimes, for aesthetic affect, he bends down to grab the bottom of his baggy shorts. Then he waits for his defender--the one with inside position--to get distracted; waits for the ball to work its way around the perimeter; patiently watches for a passing lane to open up on the other side of the basket. When it all clicks, Tarver comes to life. He opens his eyes wide, stands straight up, and abruptly spins past his man, eager to finish the performance all alone at basketball's center stage--just him, the rim, and an easy two.
The old rope-a-dope. In their season opener on November 18, the Golden Gophers' 6-8, 230-pound center pulled it off at least twice against the bigger, bulkier, but less experienced Villanova Wildcats. With just a few minutes left in the fourth quarter, it resulted in an aggressive two-handed slam, which brought the Target Center crowd of 12,000 to its feet and put the maroon and gold ahead 64-39. Minutes later, as Tarver loped off the floor with 12 points, 10 rebounds, one assist, and an easy victory, a trio of college kids--wearing half-basketballs on their heads to impress visiting ESPN anchorman Dick Vitale--began to genuflect. "We're not worthy," they chanted again and again.
At the postgame press conference, Minnesota coach Clem Haskins called Tarver his "secret weapon." Villanova coach Steve Lappas did a little genuflecting of his own and suddenly Tarver was a Saturday-morning headline, a cool elixir for spin-sters at the UM's athletic department who'd spent the long, hot summer trying to minimize the excommunication of junior forward Courtney James, convicted in August of domestic assault. Gopher faithful spent the weekend wondering whether their team, fresh off a Big Ten Championship and a Final Four appearance, could actually put together another winning season. Tarver, still only a junior, was the future. And for three days, at least, the future looked bright. It was surreal.
This, after all, was the same Miles Tarver who last year was routinely booed at Williams Arena, while the Gophers were chalking up a best-ever 31-4 record. The same Miles Tarver who local talk-radio hosts were taking personal potshots at when Clem Haskins called him the MVP of a Final Four loss to Kentucky. The same Miles Tarver who played a squeaky fourth fiddle to James and seniors John Thomas and Trevor Winter; who was unable to box out against like-sized guys in the Big Ten, unwilling to turn long rebounds into easy points, nearly incapable of finishing a set play in the lane. The poster child for athletic anxiety, literally shaking when a junk ball ended up in his slippery hands.
Minnesota fans are a fickle lot, however. Give them a big win over a "name" team in the Target center on national TV, they're ready to crown a new messiah. Never mind that the "name" team, in this case Villanova, is an inexperienced group with no go-to guy and a starting center that would've made former Gopher Jim Shikenjanski look graceful; they're ready to forgive and forget. When lineups were announced before the NIT first-round game between Utah State and Minnesota November 17, Tarver's name caused more of a roar than Sam Jacobson's; no small feat considering the senior swingman from Cottage Grove is the aging alumni's Great White Hope.
Forty minutes later, as the visiting Courtney James played the role of spectator, the winds in Williams Arena were already shifting. Still seven weeks from the Big Ten opener, things were getting ugly and the whining had returned to familiar territory. At halftime fans could be heard questioning Tarver's confidence, and bemoaning his inability to turn precious rebounds into even more precious points. In the 75-64 loss, Tarver managed only two points and seven rebounds. The following Saturday, in a one point loss to Alabama, Tarver put up better numbers, mixed it up down low like he did during the Villanova game, and was exceptionally speedy on defense. He even managed a couple bouts of three-quarter-court pressing. But the luster was gone. Once again, the impending season promised to be too long, and the future was no longer Tarver, but the promise of centers Kyle Sanden, a 6-11 redshirt freshman, Antoine Broxsie, a very fresh 6-10, 220-pound newcomer, and blue-chip signee Joel Pryzbylla, who isn't even on campus yet.
By midseason, when this Gopher team is battling with Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, and Indiana to stay within spitting distance of the Big Ten's top three (Purdue, Michigan, and Wisconsin), there will no doubt be complaints about Tarver, wakes held in James's memory. Fans in the cheap seats will boo, mainly because they never liked Tarver in the first place: never liked his casual, West Coast gait or his penchant for pumping himself up after a good play. They forget that college basketball, especially under Haskins, is often defined by slow growth, not perpetual motion. But that won't stop sports analysts from wondering what this team could do with a "true" center.
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