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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.
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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