This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.

  Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno

5ive Questions: How will Al Nolen's return affect the rotation?

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball Updated: December 15, 2010 - 12:47 PM

 

What's up? 

The Gophers (9-1) will face Akron (4-3) Wednesday night at Williams Arena before taking an eight-day break because of finals.

Here are five questions related to the team and the upcoming game:

When Al Nolen comes back (assuming he's in game shape) who will start? 

Tubby Smith plays everybody. Still, Nolen's return, possibly against Akron but likely against South Dakota State next week, will affect his entire rotation.

If he puts Nolen back to starting point guard as expected, he'll probably move Devoe Joseph or Rodney Williams to the second wave.

You might see this ...

Starters: Nolen, Joseph, Blake Hoffarber, Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III or Nolen, Hoffarber, Williams, Mbakwe and Sampson.

But Nolen's return will also affect the second wave, which has gelled since the start of the season.

Smith seems comfortable with Maverick Ahanmisi guiding that second group. But if Joseph ends up with the reserves, he'll most likely play that role. Maurice Walker continues to grow and Colton Iverson is a veteran. Austin Hollins has solidified himself as a key part of that unit, too. And Chip Armelin is a catalyst off the bench.

But someone has to go.

You might see this with the second unit ...

Joseph, Armelin, Hollins, Walker and Iverson.

But if Smith goes with a three-guard rotation, one he employed last season and one that makes a lot of sense offensively this year, Williams will probably move to the second unit.

What happens to Armelin and Hollins in that scenario? Both are contributors with the second unit.

But one of them could end up as the 11th or 12th man in that scenario.

A second unit with Williams might look like this ...

Ahanmisi, Hollins, Williams, Walker and Iverson or Ahanmisi, Armelin, Williams, Walker and Iverson.

It's a good problem to have. The Gophers have enough size inside and talent on the perimeter to mix-and-match this season.

What's really wrong with Nolen? 

I reported that multiple sources close to the program said Nolen had plantar fasciitis and could miss the start of Big Ten season. During Tuesday's availability, Nolen said he's actually suffering from a stress fracture.

Tubby Smith said doctors aren't sure.

"I don't think the doctors know [what it is]. .. It's kind of like 'House.' Could be anything," Smith said Tuesday.

Nolen, however, said doctors found a stress fracture when they took x-rays of his foot. He said didn't want to go forward with surgery to repair it.

Nolen doesn't want to risk further injury so he said he'll probably play when the team faces South Dakota State next week. But he hopes to return by Big Ten play at the latest.

The Gophers need Nolen to be 100 percent. His agility is so important for his defensive abilities. You have to wonder if this is a foot injury that will "heal on its own" or a condition that will affect the senior point guard's entire season.

What's Maurice Walker's ceiling? 

Walker was recruited by some of the top programs in the country. Some schools backed off, however, due to concerns about his weight.

Like Glen Davis, Tractor Traylor and other big Division I prospects before him, there's a fine line for Walker when it comes to size.

But Walker has slimmed down since he arrived on campus over the summer. And he's displayed the quickness and agility that his high school coaches raved about.

At 6-10, 290 pounds (listed weight), he's become a key part of Smith's second unit. He moves very well for a player his size. He has good hands and a nice touch. And inside, he immoveable. He uses his body well to gain favorable position near the basket. He's an asset and he's getting better. He's 12-for-21 in the team's last five games. He's registered double-digit minutes in the last three games.

The Canadian freshman might look like a completely different player in a few years, as he continues to build up his body.

I walked past Glen Davis his freshman season at LSU and I couldn't believe how massive he was. You knew that once he shook the weight, he'd be a different player. Look at him now. He's playing a key role with one of the best teams in the NBA.

Walker works with people who are paid to keep him in shape, a luxury absent at the high school level. Now that he's on campus, he has access to the proper resources to develop physically.

How will the eight-day break affect the team?

With finals, the Gophers will play Akron Wednesday and take a break until next week's home matchup against South Dakota State, their final nonconference game before the start of Big Ten play.

But this team has a lot of veterans who will keep everyone focused.

They know that looking beyond their next two games is dangerous. Just ask Tennessee.

And Nolen's academic issues were a wake-up call for the rest of the team. Unlike last season, there's no buzz about academic issues as this team prepares for finals, a good sign.

But this is a key stretch. The Gophers have to use this break to get healthy and address some of their flaws (free throws, turnovers).

They're facing a very tough opening stretch in Big Ten play that could define the rest of their season. Every day is a key opportunity to prepare for that.

What's your prediction? 

I think the Gophers will get a solid win over an Akron team that's held its own on the road with the exception of a tough loss at Temple. The Zips also have some talent in the paint.

Prediction: Gophers 78, Akron 65 (I'm 9-1 this season)

 

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