Gopher backcourt searching for backbone


      Nolen and Westbrook need to blend in less for the U's stretch run 


The 19-5 Golden Gophers have popped in-and-out of the AP top-25 four times this season.  At present, said poll ranks them as the nation's 30th best team (as does the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll).  Tomorrow afternoon's game at Penn State presents an opportunity for the Gophers to piggy-back on their Tuesday victory over lowly Indiana, and perhaps win their way back into a recognized ranking.

But a number preceding their institution's name shouldn't be their greatest concern at present.

After tomorrow, the U has just five conference games left on the schedule before the Big Ten Tournament.  Whether the Gophers somehow find a way to win the conference regular season/tournament, an at-large bid for the ensuing NCAAs still appears very much a viable journey for the club.

Yet the forecast for neither sings very sanguine if the Minnesota backcourt can't tighten the reigns.  Anyone who has watched high-level tournament pressure play knows that the rub always comes down to the pace, confidence, and composure of the guards.

And neither Al Nolen nor Lawrence Westbrook has done much to assuage concerns in this regard as of late.  Beginning with the former (and younger), sophomore Nolen's overt natural talent and near-freakish speed are now readily understood and respected throughout the Big Ten.  But in recent weeks, the juice hasn't equaled the proverbial squeeze.  Nolen's strongest asset isn't as a scorer, so the fact that he hasn't bettered his season average of 7.6 ppg in the last five contests isn't a major deal.  Of far greater concern is that Nolen - 4th in the conference at 4.9 assists/per - has only usurped that level of distribution in two of the Gophers' last eight games.  In addition, his 2.2 steals/per - tops in the Big Ten - have also leveled off, with Al bettering that average just once in his last five showdowns (against disastrous Indiana on Tuesday).

His drop-off isn't a singular backcourt drama. Junior Lawrence Westbrook, the Gophers' top scorer at 12.7 ppg, has topped that average just once in his last six contests.  Contrary to Nolen, we truly do need and rely on his scoring more than his dishing, which is why (grab your gin) the fact that Westbrook ranks 971st in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio (.88) hasn't felled the club completely.

Two of the four teams ahead of Minnesota in the Big Ten (Ohio State and Purdue) play road games as well on Valentine's Day - so we may get some charity love, win or lose.

But if the G-Men's top guards can't slow their respective rolls, any enthusiasm over a March Madness run for the U is simply unwarranted, insane, and Mad in theory and conjecture.