Ralph Sampson III's ankle is healed. He's been back on the court, he's dunking in games and practice and he's regaining some aggressiveness.
But Gophers men's basketball coach Tubby Smith is still not sure it's time for him to start.
"It depends," said Smith when asked whether the 6-11 senior would start Saturday's game against St. Peter's. "I think he's getting stronger, he's getting his wind back. So he possibly will."
With Big Ten play a little over two weeks away -- and the team already without the injured Trevor Mbakwe for the rest of the season -- now seems like a good time for the Gophers to start working Sampson back into a lineup lacking experience. But with the current starting five rolling, the lingering indecision by the coaching staff is enough to raise questions about whether a starting role is still Sampson's to claim.
Truth be told, it isn't all about Sampson, who wasn't made available to speak with the media Friday. Redshirt freshman Elliott Eliason, who has filled in at center since Sampson has been out, has played well and has visibly impressed Smith.
With no major conference teams remaining on the rest of the Gophers' nonconference schedule, Sampson's persisting soreness offers a convenient reason to test other options at the position. So far, the experiments have gone well: Eliason has been showing the spark and fire Smith has long hoped to get from Sampson, the team is playing well together and the victories are following -- factors that almost necessitate Smith giving it good, hard contemplation before sticking the 6-11, 260-pound Eliason back on the bench.
"If Elliott's playing well, I'll go with whoever's playing well," Smith said in reference to Saturday's game. "It's about finding opportunities for him because he's played so well. And it's our job to find times and when there is a position to get him in and when he can contribute, he will.
"He's our most active screener, he's our most aggressive post player we have now, he's our biggest post player. I know how elated I am; I'm sure he too is thrilled he's had this opportunity."
After rolling his ankle Nov. 17, Sampson hobbled through three games in Orlando over Thanksgiving weekend, missed the next two and then returned to score 10 points in 19 minutes off the bench Tuesday against Appalachian State. For now, Smith is maintaining the stance that when Sampson comes back at full strength, Eliason will return to the bench -- with the exception of games when matchups dictate a larger lineup, when the two could play together.
Coaches and players note that Sampson brings more than just size: Without Mbakwe, he's the only senior on a very young team. With Eliason in the lineup, three of the five starters have never played in a Big Ten game.
"Ralph's been here for four years, and he knows the ins and outs of Coach Smith's offense and defense," junior Rodney Williams said. "And he's had that experience out there. So I think it's going to be key for him to be out there, kind of directing guys and telling them what to do."
The Gophers still haven't played without Mbakwe and with a full-strength Sampson. In the past three games, Williams' play has risen to levels comparable to what Mbakwe was producing for the Gophers before he was injured. Is there a chance that in a new environment Sampson could also do the same?
"I hope so," Smith said. "I think right now it's a matter of mentally getting back into it and getting comfortable. Don't worry about the expectations, just come in and have a good practice. It's just a matter of him psychologically saying, 'I'm fine.' I think I saw that in practice the other day and I saw it in the game [Tuesday].
"I think he's well on his way not only to being himself but better. I think he has a sense of urgency that, 'I've got to step up. The team is counting on me.' "