Hartman: Saunders likes what he sees in Gophers

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 1, 2013 - 11:29 AM

The view from a former NBA coach and Gophers player is that the U is strong when it limits turnovers.

If anybody should be a good judge about how far this year's Gophers basketball team can go, including its potential in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, it is former Gophers player and longtime NBA head coach Flip Saunders.

And he believes that the men of Tubby Smith's squad can beat any team in the country if they limit their turnovers.

"If they don't turn the ball over they can beat anybody," he said. "If they turn the ball over they can get beat by anybody."

The Gophers lead the Big Ten in turnovers at 13.8 per game.

"So their formula is very easy," Saunders said. "They just have to make sure that they take care of the basketball. They have the physical presence to rebound with anybody in the country, and they get extra shot opportunities off the offensive rebound.

"If they don't turn the ball over and give other teams those type of open floor opportunities they can have success against anybody in the country, they showed against Indiana."

The Gophers played a much cleaner game against the No. 1 Hoosiers on Tuesday than they did in their 88-81 loss at Assembly Hall in January. In that game they had 17 team turnovers, compared to just 10 in their 77-73 win this week in Williams Arena.

Saunders, who should know whether a coach has ability or not, believes Smith is a great coach, and he credited Smith for a change in the Gophers offense that helped them beat the Hoosiers.

"What I thought was impressive is they changed some things offensively a little bit on their slice-cut motion," Saunders said. "I thought that opened things up for them."

And what impressed Saunders most about the performance of Trevor Mbakwe was the way he handled Cody Zeller, the great Indiana sophomore center.

"Cody Zeller is going to be a top-five pick [in the NBA draft] if he comes out, more than likely," Saunders said. "And [Mbakwe] just totally dominated him with both his physical presence, his offense and also just his intensity."

There had been some lingering questions about Mbakwe's skills translating to the NBA after some subpar games, especially as he returned this season from knee surgery, but Saunders said this game cleared up some of those concerns.

"He dominated from the minute that he stepped on the floor in the first play of the game until the last play of the game," he said. "There's no question, like I said, I think people have always known that he had the ability to rebound and do things, but there's always a question mark when you have a guy coming off a couple knee surgeries."

Gophers were ready

Smith saw a special determination in the Gophers against Indiana, he said.

"I've been concerned about the ebb and flow of this group ever since the season started," he said. "To just play hard, play smart but play with some balance and not get too excited. We have a tendency, you think too much of yourself when you win and less of yourself when you lose. It's my job to keep them calm, but the sense of urgency [Tuesday] was the key. I sensed that from the beginning of the game. I didn't watch warmups, but I sensed that in the locker room."

Yahoo Sports reported that "the Gophers basketball team's victory over Indiana not only erases any doubt over whether the Gophers will make the NCAA tournament but also positions them to earn a favorable seed in spite of their mid-season swoon. If Minnesota can take advantage of a soft finishing stretch of schedule and defeat Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue, a No. 6 or 7 seed is not out of the realm of possibility."

Penn State, the Gophers opponent Saturday at Williams Arena, had lost 14 straight conference games and had not won a game since Dec. 29 when it overcame a 15-point deficit in the second half to upset No. 4 Michigan 84-78 on Wednesday.

Jottings

• The Gophers used to have a number of athletes who played more than one sport, dating back to Bud Grant, who played football, basketball and baseball, and Dave Winfield, who played baseball and basketball. But they haven't had many like that for a long time, and now it appears that will change. Basketball player Wally Ellenson, one of the top high jumpers in the country, will definitely join the track team once the basketball season is over. Gophers wide receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts has already joined the track team and finished third in the Big Ten Indoor Track and Field Championships in the 60-yard dash. And there is a possibility of another gridder, Berkley Edwards, who just won the 60-yard dash at a high school meet in Michigan, joining the track team a year from now when he joins the football team.

• The Gophers added another walk-on this week in kicker Andrew Harte of Montini Catholic in Lombard, Ill. Harte impressed the staff at the Gophers summer camp when he kicked a number of long field goals.

• Another former Wisconsin coach, John Palermo, has joined Paul Cryst's football staff at Pittsburgh. Palermo was also on the Gophers staff under Lo Holtz.

• Former Twins center fielder Ben Revere went 2-for-4 with two runs scored against his old ballclub in the Twins' 12-5 win over the Phillies in spring training Wednesday. On the other side of things, his potential replacement, Aaron Hicks, went 2-for-3 with a run scored, two RBI and a double. Hicks is hitting .400 in early play.

• Max Shortell, the Gophers quarterback who left school, is taking a semester off while deciding where he will transfer. ... MarQueis Gray has chosen local agent Mitch Chargo to represent him.

• It appears that Maryland's path to join the Big Ten is not going to be an easy one, after a North Carolina judge refused to dismiss an ACC lawsuit. The ACC is insisting that Maryland pay a $52 million exit fee in order to leave the conference. ... Tim Brewster was the seventh new coach to join the Florida State football coaching staff since the end of the 2012 season. One of the coaches leaving that staff was former Gophers defensive coach Greg Hudson, who became the defensive coordinator at Purdue.

• Former Timberwolves executive and player Fred Hoiberg took a pretty tough loss when his Iowa State squad fell to Kansas in overtime Monday. The Big 12 reprimanded the officiating crew of the game for two terrible calls at the end of regulation that very well could have cost Hoiberg a big win over the nation's sixth-ranked team. The Cyclones are 19-9 overall and in fourth place in the league.

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

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