Last night, after the Gophers won a third consecutive game without Ralph Sampson III in the starting lineup, coach
Tubby Smith told the media that the big center’s ankle has healed.
But the team has held him out -- and is just now starting to ease him back in --to give their only remaining senior the time he needs to get back to full strength and full energy.
“Its’ important for him to get his wind back, and his stamina … and the feel,” Smith said. “Ralph can do a lot of different things but he’s a much better player at 100 percent and we need 100 percent out of him going forward and that’s why we kept him out of playing for so long.”
Having Elliott Eliason step in and give solid performances bought Sampson some time as the team found a groove and rolled without him or Trevor Mbakwe.
But it also turned up the pressure.
With Sampson likely to return to the starting lineup Saturday against St. Peter’s, it is more critical than ever that he show up primed and ready to go. The team babied him a little. Rodney Williams single-handedly grabbed the loose reins. Eliason proved he’s a worthy and eager backup.
With Big Ten play just around the corner, Sampson’s time is now.
“For us to make a big push in the Big Ten, we’re going to need Ralph back, so whatever he needs to do to get his wind back, we’re going to need for him to do it,” Williams said.
Tuesday, the senior finished with 10 points – four of which came in the final two minutes – and five rebounds. It was perhaps his best game since the second of the season. With Eliason – a redshirt freshman -- grabbing seven and nine rebounds in his first two starts and showing an aggressiveness Sampson seems to lack at times, the expectations for his return have only risen.
It’s good driving fuel for the Gophers, who looked especially thin at that position just a month ago. And for Smith, having two centers who are trying to out-do each other is the best possible scenario.
“One of the things, I think Elliott brought us a lot of: he’s a willing screener and a willing passer – not that Ralph’s not,” Smith said. “But I think those are things Elliott has learned from Ralph, playing against him every day. I really like the way both Elliott and Ralph are playing.”