Sid Hartman: Coaching, freshmen fuel U's turnaround

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 10, 2008 - 10:06 PM

The Gophers' basketball roster looks much the same, but the arrival of Tubby Smith and guards Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber have brought more success.

A year ago after 14 games, the Gophers men's basketball team had a 6-8 record, compared to their current 11-3 mark after beating Northwestern 82-63 on Wednesday.

Tubby Smith took over a team that was 9-22 last season, but he is not surprised the Gophers have lost to only to Florida State, UNLV and Michigan State.

It has been an amazing story about how Smith and his staff have made this team so competitive after a very dismal season last year.

"I'm really disappointed that we're not 13-, 14-0," Smith said. "I thought we had skilled-enough players, and I thought we built the schedule in a way that we could compete.

"Two of the losses we had -- the one at Florida State and the one at UNLV, I was really disappointed in the way we played, that we let the games get away. You know Michigan State, same way. If we executed down the stretch, we'd have a better shot."

The roster is the same as last year with the addition of freshmen guards Al Nolen of Minneapolis Henry and Blake Hoffarber of Hopkins, and Cal Poly transfer Travis Busch, who has seen little action.

No doubt Nolen and Hoffarber, who hit five consecutive three-pointers in the first half in the victory over the Wildcats, have helped a lot.

Nolen has been the biggest surprise. There was some question last summer whether he'd be academically eligible to play.

"Al is leading the league in steals and it's phenomenal for a freshman, because he's only averaging [22] minutes a game," Smith said. "He just has those instincts and hands and lift and great anticipation. And then we really work hard on forcing the guy to turn his back. If you get a guy turned, [Nolen] has the ability to come in from behind, or anticipate you. He really studies a player.

"He does a good job of reading the scouting report and recognizing. It's really phenomenal that he can take the ball off of people the way he does, off of guys on the dribble. Usually you get steals ... and I think he got one off of a pass [against Northwestern], where he shot the passing gap, but that's something you don't see and it's very unusual for a guard at this level to be able to take the ball off a guy that's handling."

What hurt the Gophers some Wednesday was that point guard Lawrence McKenzie has a injured hand. It must be troubling him because he didn't score in the first half and wound up with five points. "He's been struggling with that, but he gutted it out and played pretty hard," Smith said about McKenzie.

The Gophers' next game is Saturday at Penn State, which is 2-0 in the Big Ten, including a victory at Northwestern. If the Gophers can get a victory on the road, there will be real reason for excitement.

Give Coleman credit

While attending the Wild news conference Thursday, announcing the sale of the majority stake in the team by Bob Naegele to Craig Leipold, two thoughts entered my so-called mind.

One was the inflation in the price of NHL clubs and the cost of arenas where they play.

Second was how the Metropolitan Sports Commission and the Minneapolis city council handed the opportunity to St. Paul to get a NHL team and build an arena that has made it difficult for Target Center to operate in the black.

First, about the inflation: In February 1966, the NHL awarded six new franchises, including the North Stars, who played at Met Center. The cost was $2 million each. The Wild franchise cost in the area of $80 million and was sold for more than $200 million.

Met Center was built for $6 million. Xcel Center's cost was $130 million.

At Thursday's news conference, there was a lot of praise for current senator and former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, who completely outsmarted and outworked the Minneapolis politicians to get a franchise while the local politicians did nothing to keep the North Stars under the ownership of brothers George and Gordon Gund and later under Norm Green.

The Gunds, before moving the franchise to San Jose (thanks to Lou Nanne and others, the Sharks were created from North Stars players and draft choices and Minnesota retained a team) asked for remodeling of Met Center and some help in selling season tickets. Both requests were refused.

Then when Green bought the North Stars, he would have signed a long-term lease had the Metropolitan Sports Commission not turned down his request to give him a piece of the Met Center parking lot to build a small shopping center.

Green also thought he had a deal to move to Target Center, but the original owners of the Timberwolves didn't want that to happen. Green eventually moved the North Stars to Dallas in 1993.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman did everything within his power to move the Winnipeg Jets to Target Center, but the then members of the Minneapolis city council would not give any financial help for that to happen. Winnipeg eventually moved to Phoenix and became the Coyotes in 1996.

So the story is how Coleman and the St. Paul leaders outsmarted and outworked the great politicians here and came up with a great asset to downtown St. Paul with the Wild and Xcel Energy Center. Now there are two Twin Cities arenas fighting each other for attractions and neither is making any money on the shows.

Jottings

Bill Smith, Twins general manager, said reliever Juan Rincon, who had arm trouble last year, has pitched well in the Venezuela winter league.

"He pitched 10 games before the end of the year, and now they've just started their round-robin playoff tournament down there," Smith said.

Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman said the club might send guard Randy Foye to the NBA development league to play a few games to get in playing shape once his knee is healthy enough to practice hard.

Brandon Smith, the former Henry guard who left the Gophers this year, is reported to be headed to Texas A&M, where former Gophers assistant Bill Walker is on the staff. ... Tommy Becker, the former Wayzata linebacker who left the Gophers football team, is reported to be heading for the University of St. Thomas. ... Jac Sperling, vice chairman of the Wild, will bring his World's Toughest Rodeo to Xcel Center on Feb. 1-2.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on his Podcast twice a week at www.startribune.com/sidcast. shartman@startribune.com

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