Miles To Go Before He Sleeps

Fans forget that college basketball, especially under Clem Haskins, is often defined by slow growth, not perpetual motion. Hopefully, Gophers center Miles Tarver will ignore them.

Hopefully, Tarver will ignore them and listen to Haskins, a strategy that was effective this past off-season. Because, despite the carping, Tarver has matured on and off the court, both as a player and leader. He's banging inside, throwing up fadeaway jumpers, making smarter passes, and helping the team's younger big men learn Haskins's defensive system and offensive spacing. He's also become comfortable enough with his position to start putting together an arsenal of moves like the rope-a-dope, which exploit his speed while making up for his lack of size. In short--though there were familiar missteps in the Utah State, Alabama, and, yes, even the Villanova game--Tarver's getting better under the gun.

The Alabama loss was an ugly heartbreaker. One of only four teams to beat Minnesota last year, the Crimson Tide seemed a good team for the Gophers to get well on. Three of their best players had either graduated or transferred, meaning that Gopher shooters Eric Harris, Kevin Clark, Quincy Lewis, and Jacobson would have the benefit of speed and experience offensively. 'Bama's primary front-court threat to the Broxsie-Tarver-Sanden rotation would be Demetrius Alexander, a mobile up-and-comer to say the least, but not an immovable force. Overall, the Gophers seemed a deeper, more versatile club.

The first half was close. The Tide held a rebounding edge, but the Gopher big men held their own while the offense ambled along. Sanden and Broxsie cleaned the lane for Harris, Lewis, and Clark, who made a number of sharp, unhindered cuts to the basket. Broxsie and Tarver pulled down key defensive rebounds to ignite the break against the bigger, slower visitors. Sanden, gaining confidence by the game, even managed to bang his way into the post. As usual, the club played scrappy defense, succeeding in a trap they should've used earlier and more often against Utah State.

Then in the second half things fell apart. No one could drop a shot or grab a rebound during a 15-0 run by the Tide. Instead of looking for ways to run the ball at the basket, Jacobson got impatient and the Minnesota guards started throwing up prayers. "It's our shooting, that's the problem," Haskins said later, when asked what happened to the defensive intensity. "When you score one or two, you feel better. It doesn't take a genius to figure that out."

Like many of Haskins's teams, the Gophers threw together a comeback, spurred by a furious, full-court defense and three consecutive trifectas from Jacobson. In six minutes they shaved a 14 point deficit into a chance to win the game on the final shot, a three by Jacobson that came up short. "The only way to go is keep shooting the ball," a dejected Jacobson told reporter after reporter after the game. "I just have to keep shooting the ball."

Tarver, just like Haskins, echoed Jacobson's sentiment: "We are a jump-shooting team, with some of the best perimeter players in the country. Now we need to establish other parts of the game, that's true. But we're a jump-shooting team."

Which is another way of saying they can't consistently get position down low. Or rebound: Like Haskins says, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if this Gopher team isn't shooting well they will struggle against the Utah States and Alabamas, let alone the Big Ten. For all of Tarver's advances, he's still at a disadvantage physically and athletically against Michigan's Robert Traylor, Purdue's Brad Miller, and, on a good day, Indiana's Jason Collier--a year away from consistent, solid play, especially on the road. The long-limbed Broxsie, although he's already showed impressive toughness and finesse despite his lack of strength, will no doubt find himself in foul trouble more than a few times before he's ready to clean the boards. Sanden, who has a nice touch when his nerves settle, seems unsure of his role. Lewis is tough in the defensive lane, but will rarely be asked to bang low. For his part, Jacobson plays in spurts. Defensively, he boards aggressively when other parts of his game are clicking. Offensively, he does a nice job following his shots, but should look to be in a better position to help out on the glass.

What will be interesting to watch is whether Haskins continues to integrate his big men into the offensive scheme, if only to mix up the team's look from game to game, situation to situation. At this point, it's clear Tarver, Broxsie, and Sanden exist for the same reason James existed last year--to provide a secondary option, free up the outside, and bang. Without Bobby Jackson and Charles Thomas around to help with the shooting percentage, however (not to mention lost local recruit Khalid El-Amin who's burning up the nets at UConn), it may sometimes be necessary to work the ball down low for higher percentage shots. Because even if those shots are missed, opponents won't be able to get out and run as quickly.

In the midst of the Tide's second-half spurt, for instance, Jacobson was being trapped on the right side of the three-point line. While he was looking in vain for a guard to streak across the top of the key, Sanden had managed to post up underneath for a wide-open look at the basket. If the big men, small and inexperienced as they are, were more integral to the offense, Sanden might've gotten a pass and had a shot at center stage--just him, the rim, and an easy two.

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