For followers of Gopher basketball, the 1999 Big Ten conference race is laden with delectable uncertainty. No fewer than half a dozen of the league's 11 squads are legitimate contenders to finish with the best 16-game record during the regular season, and two or three others are long-shot threats to pull a series of upsets and win the Big Ten tournament. This competitive parity is no mere jumble of mediocrities, either: Six of the nation's top-25-ranked teams are from the Big Ten, and the conference has been so successful in interleague play that only Illinois and Michigan would seem to have no chance of landing a berth in the NCAA tournament.
With an intriguing mix of formidable strengths and obvious flaws, Minnesota is a key component in the Big Ten championship puzzle. The Gophers have a superb coach, a couple of pressure-tempered senior leaders, and an extraordinarily gifted 7-footer on their roster. They also sport a plethora of lop-sided role-players and are relying on untested freshmen and sophomores for the two most important positions on the court. A 12-4 record and a first- or second-place finish in the conference is not out of the question--but neither is sixth or seventh place. Whatever the outcome, the next two months should exceed the Gophers' (and the Big Ten's) lusty quota of floor burns and last-minute thrillers.
Any discussion of Gopher basketball necessarily begins with coach Clem Haskins, who during his 13 years at Minnesota has fashioned a perennially competitive program based on obedient kids playing dogged defense. Throughout his 18-year coaching career, Haskins has been a courtly, disciplined man who improved on his craft by dint of hard work and attention to detail. But after he picked up the NCAA Coach of the Year Award en route to the Final Four in 1997, his coaching took a quantum leap. This may be the result of his extracurricular involvement coaching various Olympic and Goodwill Games teams. More likely, it stems from a deepened sense of confidence and contentment after his national validation by the media and his peers.
Gone is the overcoaching of just a few years back, when Haskins's substitution patterns seemed to sacrifice his players' rhythmic teamwork for the sake of obtaining better individual match-ups. Now when the coach shuffles his lineup, it's obvious that he's either grooming his bench players for specific roles, giving his starters a breather, or responding to a weakness he he has detected on the court. And he's less apt to yank a player out of the game immediately after a major gaffe.
Gone too--or at least greatly diminished--is Haskins's penchant for martyrdom, which reached its nadir with his screed against talk-radio commentators three years ago. Although still prone to occasional bouts of self-righteousness, the coach is less paranoid and more secure and revealing in his dealings with the media. In a similar vein, Haskins used to sound so gleefully avid to assume the blame for his team's troubles that the sentiment seemed to lack conviction. Yet last week, in his admission that he had robbed guard Terrance Simmons of his confidence by pushing him too hard to be a starter, there was enough truth, brevity, and compassion both to take the pressure off Simmons and to confer an extra measure of class on Clem.
And finally, gone is Haskins's insistence on stodgy offensive sets, where six perimeter passes still often yielded little more than a low-percentage jump shot. The coach's more free-wheeling approach is born, in part, of necessity: The majority of the Gophers' current starting five can't be trusted to convert high-percentage jumpers, and are more adept at scoring in transition off the fast break. But part of the change is simply Haskins letting himself get jiggy with his half-court offense--witness his call for an improbably successful three-point bomb by backup center Kyle Sanden that put the Gophers ahead with just seconds to play in an eventual overtime loss to Cincinnati December 16.
More than anything, however, Haskins' forte as a coach is in how thoroughly he can instill the fundamental tenets of the game into his players. Not coincidentally, the backbone of this year's Minnesota team consists of two senior forwards who have labored under Haskins for three-and-a-half years--Quincy Lewis and Miles Tarver.
You don't need to know much about basketball to appreciate Lewis's value to the team. A silky-smooth performer at small forward, the 6-foot-7 Lewis is either too tall or too quick for most opposing defenders--he's equally comfortable converting short jumpers down near the basket or sinking three-pointers out on the perimeter. Thoughtful and levelheaded, he has thrived in his role as a team leader this year. His speed and wing span make him a solid defensive player, he currently averages nearly seven rebounds per game, and his extensive postseason tournament experience prevents him from getting flustered under pressure. This fall, he is almost sure to become the fourth Minnesota player in the past three years to be taken in the first round of the pro basketball draft.
Miles Tarver is not nearly so gifted. Tarver's awkward, errant jump shot provides nearly as much comic relief as his whimsical postgame interviews. Too often, he will commit a turnover by throwing the ball where he thinks a teammate should be going. But no matter. The Big Ten has always been an especially physical conference, where the enlightened use of elbows and backsides and the ability to grab rebounds are precious commodities. This year, most of the league's top contenders boast tough, skillful players at the power-forward position, including Purdue's Brian Cardinal, Michigan State's Antonio Smith, and Iowa's Jesse Settles. Minnesota will counter with Tarver, a tenacious rebounder and defensive anchor thoroughly versed in the intricacies of Haskins's system.
Tarver's ability to box out under the boards enables him to play bigger than his size (6-8, 225 pounds) would indicate, and the keen anticipation that prompts turnovers in his passes helps him use his quickness in getting to distant rebounds and other loose balls. What's more, his presence on the court complements and steadies the Gophers' wunderkind, freshman center Joel Przybilla. For all these reasons, Tarver's role on the team is less flashy but just as vital as Lewis's. A classic, Haskins-bred overachiever, he will likely lead Minnesota in minutes played if he stays out of foul trouble.
The third senior starter on the Gophers is shooting guard Kevin Clark, an explosive enough scorer to prompt the marketing gurus at the university to dub this season the "Lewis and Clark Expedition." But unlike Tarver and Lewis, Clark has only spent a year under Haskins, making him a less reliable decision-maker than his senior peers. True, no Minnesota player is better than Clark at finishing the fast break. But the points he racks up with long-range jumpers are even more valuable, as they either punish opponents for double-teaming Lewis or prevent them from doing so. When he's hot--as he was throughout last year's NIT tournament, and against Oregon earlier this season--Minnesota becomes extremely difficult to beat.
The Gophers are woefully inexperienced at both the center and point-guard positions, but right now only the latter feels like a chronic weakness. After just 10 games as a collegian, Przybilla can already block shots and trigger a fast break better than former center John Thomas, who was a first-round pick in the NBA draft two years ago. With the gangly teen from Monticello on patrol near the basket, Haskins has been able to extend his team's trademark defensive pressure farther out on the perimeter. As a result, Minnesota's opponents are among the nation's least accurate scorers, converting just 34 percent of their shots.
Przybilla's offensive moves are rudimentary at best and it remains to be seen how he'll respond to the rough-and-tumble jousting of Big Ten play. If capable, experienced centers on lesser teams (Northwestern's Evan Eschmeyer and Penn State's Calvin Booth come to mind) get him in foul trouble early, the Gophers are susceptible to an upset. But on balance, Haskins has got to be ecstatic with what he's gotten from Przybilla thus far, particularly because the backup big men either lack muscle (Antoine Broxsie) or speed and savvy (Kyle Sanden).
Haskins has announced that point guard will be manned "by a committee" of three sophomores, meaning none of them are competent enough to successfully own the job. Mitch Ohnstad has demonstrated the most complete package of skills--he leads the team in assists, is third in the club in scoring, and plays adequate defense--but Kevin Nathaniel is starting because he and Clark are the most complementary back-court tandem.
Nathaniel rarely turns the ball over, but just as rarely makes the kind of creative pass that kick-starts an offense--nothing ventured, nothing lost nor gained. To make matters worse, Nathaniel has missed half his free-throws this season and appropriately lacks confidence in his jump shot. But his size and defensive intensity (he has nearly twice as many steals as anyone else on the team) enable Clark to concentrate on offense, and if Clark and Lewis are both hitting their shots, Minnesota doesn't require much innovation from the point guard.
Ohnstad and Simmons also complement each other well as interchangeable point- and shooting-guards, although it's easy to see how both could have difficulty going against Iowa's vaunted full-court press or Indiana's smart, quick back-court duo. Both sophomores shoot the ball better than they can pass or dribble it, and both anticipate well on defense. Simmons is slowly recovering from the almost painful uncertainty he exhibited earlier this season, yet even in his better moments seems to be auditioning as much as he is playing. The hard truth is that no matter who plays here, point guard is the Big Ten's strongest position leaguewide, and the Gophers are destined to lose a few games via the mismatches that will result.
Prediction: Przybilla keeps getting better, Lewis and Tarver stay the course, and Clark sparks at least one major upset on the road. 10-6.
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