What’s up, Gophers fans? Welcome to winter.
 
The 22nd-ranked Gophers (8-1) will face Eastern Kentucky (5-4) at Williams Arena Saturday at noon. … I think. Here are five questions to consider entering the nonconference matchup.
 
Will they play?
 
First, a story.
 
When I attended Nicolet High School in the late ‘90s, I hated snow days. That’s because we never had them.
 
Every school district in the Milwaukee area would close except that Glendale, Wis., institution. Why? Our superintendent was from Minnesota. He didn’t believe in closing school for such a cause.
 
Flash forward to Friday.
 
I called Garry Bowman, Gophers sports information director, Friday afternoon. Wanted to know the status of Saturday’s men’s basketball game. I threw out all of the Snowmageddon predictions.
 
“We’re not worried about that one,” Bowman told me. Even if the U of M cancels all activities Saturday, the basketball game will happen, he said. That’s Minnesota for ya.
 
But it makes sense to play. The Gophers are paying Eastern Kentucky to come here. Rescheduling would involve additional costs.
 
Plus, Eastern Kentucky arrived Friday night, missing the snow outburst. So get ready for a game.
 
If you decide to travel to Williams Arena, however, drive slowly. It’s a mess out there.
 
I know we’ve all experienced heavy snow, but this is serious stuff, especially with the falling temperatures coming later.
 
What’s the scoop on Eastern Kentucky?
 
The most alarming stat is that the Colonels have hit 40 percent of their three-point attempts this season. And the Gophers have the Big Ten’s worst three-point field goal percentage defense (37.7 percent).
 
IUPUI nearly knocked off Ohio State this week when it made 47 percent of its three-point attempts. A hot EKU could cause trouble at the Barn.
 
Colonels coach Jeff Neubauer was an assistant under John Beilein at West Virginia. His team runs the dreaded 1-3-1 zone, a scheme that’s given the Gophers fits under Tubby Smith.
 
But they’re small. Jeff Johnson, a 6-8 forward, is EKU’s tallest starter. Three players (Willie Cruz, Spencer Perrin, Joshua Jones and Josh Daniel) are averaging double figures.
 
It’s a balanced team that’s struggled in close games.
 
What’s Trevor Mbakwe’s ceiling?
 
Smith called Mbakwe one of the best rebounders he’s ever coached during Friday’s availability. That’s a major statement for a coach who’s been in this game for 30-plus years.
 
It’s also a sign that Smith believes Mbakwe, who has six double-doubles, is the real deal.
 
The junior power forward anchors one of the best frontcourts in the Big Ten. And he’s also a defensive force. What would the Gophers do against Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger without him?
 
Smith compares him to Houston Rockets forward Chuck Hayes, a former Kentucky star. Hayes ended up in the league because he’s a good defender and he rebounds. Mbakwe has the same assets.
 
In the Big Ten, the best teams have a guy like Mbakwe. The Gophers have craved that kind of player in Smith’s tenure.
 
Now they have him. And he’s changed the entire outlook for the program.
 
If this continues, he will end up with all-Big Ten honors by season’s end.
 
How important is Devoe Joseph?
 
Joseph adds a different dimension to the Gophers offense. There were stretches at St. Joe’s when the Gophers found themselves in a back-and-forth game.
 
Joseph (13.3 ppg) didn’t hesitate to knock down big shots that stuffed St. Joe’s momentum.
 
Al Nolen turns games with key defensive stops. Joseph’s offense creates a similar effect.
 
What’s Minnesota’s biggest concern right now?
 
Outside of Nolen’s lingering foot injury, one that could bother him throughout the season, and their defensive challenges, the Gophers have recorded 15 or more turnovers in four games this year.
 
Overall, the Gophers are doing a better job of avoiding turnovers this season. They can’t let turnovers become another major problem for them as they prepare for Big Ten play.
 
Prediction: Another foot of snow. … For the game, Gophers 77, EKU 67 (I’m 8-1 this season).
 
 

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Sources: Al Nolen has plantar fasciitis, could miss six weeks

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Al Nolen practices Monday, Tubby Smith concerned about his stamina