Change at the point; freshman Ahanmisi likely to start

  • Article by: MYRON P. MEDCALF , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 2, 2011 - 6:53 AM

Coach Tubby Smith will likely start freshman Maverick Ahanmisi at point guard Wednesday at Northwestern and move Blake Hoffarber back to shooting guard..

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Gophers freshman point guard Maverick Ahanmisi (front) is expected to get his third start of the season Wednesday against Northwestern, enabling Blake Hoffarber to return to shooting guard.

Photo: Brian Ray, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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CHICAGO - The Gophers men's basketball team will try to salvage its season with a move many of the team's armchair coaches have been suggesting for weeks.

Coach Tubby Smith will likely start freshman Maverick Ahanmisi at point guard Wednesday at Northwestern and move Blake Hoffarber back to shooting guard, where he played before Al Nolen broke his foot in January.

Although Smith said he hadn't made a final decision on his rotation against the Wildcats, he and some of his players said they've prepared this week for Ahanmisi to open the contest at point guard.

"Well it moves Blake, moves everybody back to their natural positions. We'll see how that goes," Smith said Tuesday. "That may work. We'll see. We've tried it in practice. No, I haven't made a decision yet. ... We've used it. We've looked at him in practice, and he's done a good job, so we'll see if he can handle it [Wednesday]."

The Gophers (17-11, 6-10 Big Ten) have lost seven of their past eight games, and their goal of earning a third consecutive NCAA tournament bid will demand an improbable run in the Big Ten tournament.

But they just don't have much to lose by trying something new with so many things going wrong right now. Junior forward Trevor Mbakwe said Ahanmisi has replaced center Colton Iverson in the starting rotation this week.

"Coach has been juggling the offense around a lot," Mbakwe said. "It just brings another ballhandler in that kind of helps out our team with spacing and stuff like that. ... It's just something that Coach is trying to change up. After a losing streak, you have to find anything you can do to win games."

But if Smith goes with a new lineup, many will ask, "Why now?"

Smith faced criticism for initially switching Hoffarber to point guard. He's a shooter, not a ballhandler.

Through Nolen's last game with the team, a Jan. 22 victory at Michigan, Hoffarber had hit 42 percent of his three-point attempts in Big Ten play. He has connected on 38 percent on his tries from beyond the arc since taking on a new role.

He has committed 26 of his 37 turnovers in Big Ten play since becoming the team's fulltime point guard. As a shooting guard, he was one of America's top marksman, a strength Smith hopes to take advantage of by moving him back to the wing.

Ahanmisi said Smith has told him to get the ball to Hoffarber and Mbakwe, the team's top two scorers.

"Coach just said to handle the ball, really, and get shots for Blake and Trevor and stuff like that," said Ahanmisi, who has averaged 8.8 minutes per game this season and started twice.

The Gophers simply don't have many options at point guard. Devoe Joseph left midseason. The team's other potential floor leaders aside from Hoffarber are all freshmen.

They're so shorthanded that assistant coach Saul Smith, a former Kentucky point guard, and grad assistant Dan DeWitt, who played at Northern State, joined the scout team in Tuesday's practice.

Before Tubby Smith talked about possibly inserting Ahanmisi into his starting lineup against the Wildcats (16-12, 6-11), the coach said he didn't think he could do much to shake things up with two regular-season games left.

The coach expressed doubt about his program's NCAA tournament hopes following its 70-63 loss to Michigan on Saturday. After Tuesday's practice, however, he proclaimed "there's always hope" and "you don't give up." But he also seemed leery of a late-season makeover.

"It is what it is and we can't trade for anybody," he said. "As I said before, we've lost some close games. ... After watching the film of all the games, I'm like going 'Man, how did we lose that game?' I felt that about five games, but then you see how we lost, we [didn't] execute at the end of games. We [didn't] make shots at the end of games."

All of those are signs that change -- any change -- might be a good idea.

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