For Timberwolves guard J.J. Barea, it is a new experience playing for a team that is rebuilding after winning a championship in Dallas last season.

Barea played five seasons in Dallas after being picked up as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2006. He started playing steady minutes in 2008-2009, his third season in the NBA, when he averaged 7.8 points, 3.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds in 20.3 minutes per game.

But Barea had his breakout season last year, averaging 9.5 points and 3.9 assists per game -- both career highs -- and played very well in the NBA Finals, where he had a combined 32 points and 10 assists in the deciding Game 5 and 6 victories.

So it was surprising when the Mavericks decided not to tender an offer to Barea and the Wolves were able to sign him to a four-year, $19 million contract. He hasn't disappointed so far, posting new career highs of 10.8 points, 2.4 rebounds and 20.7 minutes per game.

"It's way different -- we had a great team there the last couple of years there in Dallas," Barea said. "This year, it's just a younger team and we're building, so we have to start from the beginning over here. It's definitely harder, but you have to stay positive the whole time and find the good things.

"I'm having fun," said Barea, whose girlfriend, former Miss Universe Zuleyka Rivera, gave birth to his son last week. "But it's another experience over here with a younger team, but it's still basketball, still basketball in a great city."

As for the Mavericks not bringing him back, Barea said "It was a business decision, and I think Minnesota wanted me the most, they wanted me the most so I brought my services over here."

While there was some concern about how well the Wolves would be able to compete with three point guards in Barea, Ricky Rubio and Luke Ridnour, it hasn't been a problem as all three have averaged more than 10 points and 20 minutes per game.

Barea was asked how he enjoys playing with Rubio.

"I talk to him as much as I can and keep him positive and keep him doing what he's doing," Barea said. "He's going to be great, and he's going to get better every year. He works hard, so that's going to make him better."

He also praised Ridnour: "It's fun, it's another player like me, another point guard that can score and pass the ball. [Ridnour] makes our job a lot easier," he said.

Tubby still optimistic

After spending two hours reviewing the film of Wednesday's 66-61 loss to Michigan State and pointing out how, by not playing smart basketball the last five minutes, the Gophers failed to score a big upset over the No. 6-ranked squad, coach Tubby Smith said he still feels the Gophers can get a postseason invitation.

Their remaining three games -- Indiana here Sunday, at Wisconsin and then Nebraska at home -- give the 17-11 Gophers an opportunity to reach 20 victories.

The Gophers will be favored to beat Indiana and Nebraska and should win those. The hard test will be the game at Madison. As the Gophers coach, Smith is 3-3 against Wisconsin and 1-2 at Madison.

If they can win those three games and make a good showing in the Big Ten tournament, an NCAA invitation might still be possible.

"We actually played some of our best basketball of the season for 35 minutes against Michigan State and beat ourselves with turnovers," said Smith. "It's been the same story all year, we can't finish games."

Wittmans vs. Lin

Eden Prairie native Ryan Wittman faced off against NBA phenom Jeremy Lin eight times, posting a 5-3 record in Ivy League games, when he was at Cornell and Lin was at Harvard. Wittman, who decided to leave professional basketball and is now working in finance, averaged 8.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists in those games, while Lin averaged 13.5 points, 3.1 rebounds and two assists.

After Lin and the Knicks defeated the Washington Wizards, who are coached by Randy Wittman, Ryan's father and the former Timberwolves coach, Randy reported that his son sent him a text message saying that Cornell had done a much better job guarding Lin than the Wizards had. "Makes Dad feel good," he told the Washington Post.

Speaking of Lin, local attorney Ron Zamansky, a big Gophers fan, was having coffee at a cafe last week when he recognized Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni and naturally Zamansky brought up Lin.

"I was ready to release Lin," D'Antoni told Zamanzky. "But one of my assistant coaches convinced me to give him one more chance and the result was he had a big scoring night and he's started since."


Draymond Green, who had 17 points, five rebounds, five assists, and four steals in Michigan State's victory over the Gophers, was Trevor Mbakwe's roommate during the USA Men's World University Games last summer. According to Gophers assistant basketball coach Saul Smith, four players on that team, including Mbakwe, wound up having knee surgery this season.

• Here was Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi's itinerary starting Thursday: ride the bus with the men's hockey game to Omaha, Neb., where they play on Friday night. On Saturday morning, drive to Lincoln, Neb., where the men's indoor track team is favored to defend its Big Ten title and also watch the women's track team. Drive back to Omaha on Saturday night to watch the hockey team again at 7 p.m. and then ride the bus back and get home at 3 a.m.

• Coach Jerry Kill and the Gophers football staff will be hosts for an event on Saturday for 80-plus high school juniors who are potential college players. The athletes will hear a lot about academics as well as football.

• Reports are out that ex-Vikings Brooks Bollinger, head football coach at Hill-Murray, is set be named quarterbacks coach at the University of Pittsburgh under Paul Chryst. Chryst never coached Bollinger directly at Wisconsin, but was the tight ends coach when Bollinger was quarterback in 2002.

• Two super local sophomore high school basketball players -- Tyus Jones of Apple Valley and Rashad Vaughn of Cooper -- attended the Michigan State- Minnesota game, and even though they are being recruited by both schools, sat in seats provided by the Gophers.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. •