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Men's basketball commentary: Gophers need to play with a Chip in their backcourt

MINNEAPOLIS -- With the season spiraling like a shotgunned duck and a national ranking about to evaporate, the Minnesota Gophers basketball team may have little choice but to flip the keys to a freshman from Sulphur, La., with a Mohawk haircut wh...

MINNEAPOLIS -- With the season spiraling like a shotgunned duck and a national ranking about to evaporate, the Minnesota Gophers basketball team may have little choice but to flip the keys to a freshman from Sulphur, La., with a Mohawk haircut who's averaging four points a game and has struggled to shoot from the free-throw or 3-point line.

This is the crevice in which the once-deep, once-promising Gophers have landed after Devoe Joseph's defection and Al Nolen's injury: Their best point guard is Chip Armelin, who isn't a point guard.

He wasn't one in high school. He hasn't become one yet in college. And yet he might represent Tubby Smith's last, best chance to salvage a season that seems to grow more daunting and ominous by the hour.

Sunday, the Gophers lost 82-69 to top-ranked Ohio State, in a game that left the team looking soft and its most vocal fans looking silly.

Minnesota's tall frontcourt of Ralph Sampson, Trevor Mbakwe and Colton Iverson got shoved around by Jared Sullinger and Dallas Lauderdale. The Gophers trio committed 12 turnovers -- a shocking number for inside players -- and got outrebounded by the massive Lauderdale and the relentless Sullinger.

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Iverson tried to muscle Sullinger, once smacking him with an elbow that sent Sullinger to the floor, and prompting a vulgar chant -- an even more vulgar chant than usual -- from the student section. The chant accused Sullinger of being less than masculine.

By the end of the game, Sullinger had bullied the Gophers front line for 18 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and two steals in 35 minutes. He might not be the best player in the country. He might not be a prototypical pro prospect. He is, though, smart and tough, and chanting obscenities at such a player only makes the chanters look hopelessly stupid, especially when the team they were rooting for features so many players who don't seem to possess the mental or physical toughness to excel in the Big Ten.

Armelin, despite his flaws and inexperience, will, at least, give the Gophers an attacking guard intent on getting into the paint, finishing his shots and creating space for Blake Hoffarber.

Hoffarber, playing on a bad knee that required him to wear a brace in the second half, produced 16 points and three assists but was hassled into four turnovers. He has gamely tried to play point and shooting guard simultaneously since Nolen went down, but good teams aren't going to allow him to do both.

With Ohio State wary of him, Hoffarber had to make his three-pointers in transition or from exceedingly long ranges. You can't base an offense on 25-footers.

This is where Armelin comes in. He's rangy, quick, strong and decisive. Sunday, playing against the No. 1 team in the country, he scored 14 points, grabbed four rebounds and turned the ball over just once in 23 minutes. He can create his own shot, he can finish with creativity, and if defenses react to him, Hoffarber might find more space on the perimeter.

Asked if he can play point guard, Armelin said, "I'm pretty much confident enough to try it."

Smith noted that Austin Hollins, the freshman guard who started alongside Hoffarber on Sunday, also committed only one turnover. But while Hollins sometimes looked tentative, and wary of putting the ball on the floor with a defender nearby, Armelin seems to relish beating defenders off the dribble, and he has the body control to create his shot even when covered.

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"I love the way our freshmen played, the energy they gave us," Smith said. "Chip had one turnover in 23 minutes. Austin had one turnover. I didn't even realize it until I looked down here at the boxscore. And Trevor, and Ralph, and Colton and Blake, they had all the turnovers.

"It wasn't our freshmen. I liked our freshmen."

Smith was asked if Armelin could play point guard for him. "Chip probably could," Smith said. "He probably could help us there."

This is not to suggest that Armelin is an ideal solution. He has not shot well from the foul line or three-point line. He isn't polished. He isn't experienced.

But he plays without fear, and that makes him the Gophers' best option for the rest of the season.

That separates him from some of his softer teammates.

"With Al out, I feel I can do more," Armelin said.

If you give Armelin the keys, at least he'll use the accelerator.

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Souhan writes for the Star Tribune (Minneapolis).

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