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Posted at 7:12 AM ET, 11/29/2010

Scouting No. 15 Minnesota

By Steve Yanda

Virginia's string of six straight road games continues Monday night when the Cavaliers take on No. 15 Minnesota in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Golden Gophers are 6-0 and already have claimed impressive victories this season over then-No. 8 North Carolina and West Virginia.

Minnesota owns a much deeper and more physical frontcourt this season than in recent years past. The primary reason for that is the emergence of redshirt junior forward Trevor Mbakwe, who sat out last season while awaiting the conclusion of some legal matters. Mbakwe (6-foot-8, 240 lbs.) is averaging 13.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, while shooting 69 percent from the field this season.

Golden Gophers Coach Tubby Smith credited Mbakwe with the vast improvement Minnesota has shown on the boards. A weakness in recent seasons, rebounding has proven to be one of Minnesota's key strengths thus far this year. The Golden Gophers' rebounding margin stands at plus-6.0. By comparison, Virginia's rebounding margin is plus-1.5, and the Cavaliers have been outrebounded by at least five boards per game in three of their last four contests.

Last season, the Golden Gophers finished 21-14 (9-9 Big Ten) while maintaining a rebounding margin of plus-1.7, which ranked No. 4 in the conference. They fell to Xavier, 65-54, in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Minnesota was outrebounded in that game, 50-41, and outscored in second chance points, 20-8.

"The last few years we've had trouble rebounding the ball, but we've been pretty successful with a player like Trevor Mbakwe," Smith said Friday in a telephone interview. "He's a guy that we were missing last year on the boards, and he's been averaging nine rebounds a game for us. He kind of reminds me of the kid, (senior forward Mike) Scott, from Virginia. He's having that type of year."

Another reason for Minnesota's improved post play has been the development of junior center Ralph Sampson III (6-foot-11, 241 lbs.), who is averaging 13.0 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The son of former Virginia center Ralph Sampson Jr. also has tallied 16 blocks.

Smith said Sampson's rebounding numbers are down due to Mbakwe's presence, but also that Sampson's shot attempts are up -- also due, in part, to the attention Mbakwe draws on the court. Sampson is shooting 46.6 percent from the field.

"He's struggling right now shooting the ball, but he does everything else pretty well," Smith said. "He's a good passer and a good shot blocker. He's utilizing what he does best. I need him to be a little more physial. I need him to be a little more aggressive and play with a little more sense of urgency and with more intensity. But his game is more of a finesse game."

Minnesota's leading scorer is senior guard Blake Hoffarber (6-foot-4, 210 lbs.). Known as a deft long-range shooter, Hoffarber has made just 37.3 percent of his three-point attempts this season. That may be due, in part, to the fact that the Golden Gophers don't really possess any other three-point marksmen, which means opposing teams can hone in on shutting down Hoffarber along the perimeter because they don't have to worry much about anyone else hurting them out there.

Hoffarber is averaging 15.0 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. He also owns a 2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio.

"I think he's getting better opportunities because of our improved interior play," Smith said. "Because of that he's able to get better looks at the basket. He's not shooting a very high percentage right now, which is a concern. He's taken some tough shots, but he's been a little quick on the trigger. We've got to get him to settle down.

"And he's not getting the same looks because people are out on him. We don't have a Devoe Joseph in the backcourt, so we really don't have another outside threat on the court, and I think Blake has had to carry a big load there."

Joseph (6-foot-3, 179 lbs.) is a junior guard who has not yet played this season due to a violation of team rules. Due to recent injuries to two of Minnesota's starters, it is possible Smith could reinstate Joseph for Monday night's game, though Smith told reporters Saturday that Joseph still had some academic issues that needed to be taken care of.

The Golden Gophers will be without starting senior guard Al Nolen (6-foot-1, 188 lbs.), who suffered a right foot injury that will sideline him for at least the next few weeks. Nolen had been averaging 9.2 points and 2.7 rebounds per game and had tallied a team-high 17 steals.

Also likely to miss Monday night's game is starting sophomore forward Rodney Williams (6-foot-7, 200 lbs.), who twisted an ankle during Minnesota's 84-65 win Wednesday over North Dakota State. Williams had been averaging 6.7 points and 3.0 rebounds per game.

Freshmen guards Maverick Ahanmisi (6-foot-2, 175 lbs.) and Austin Hollins (6-foot-4, 180 lbs.) could potentially replace Nolen and Williams in the Golden Gophers' starting lineup. Ahanmisi has seen limited playing time thus far this season and is averaging 1.0 points and 0.5 rebounds per game. Hollins has played more extensive minutes and is averaging 4.7 points and 1.5 rebounds per game, while shooting 36.0 percent from the field.

Freshman guard Chip Armelin (6-foot-3, 186 lbs.) also is likely to see a good amount of playing time Monday. He is averaging 4.8 points and 1.8 rebounds per game, while shooting 46.2 percent from the field.

Minnesota's frontcourt depth is striking in both size and production. Junior center Colton Iverson (6-foot-10, 258 lbs.) is shooting 52.9 percent from the field and is averaging 8.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Freshman forward Maurice Walker (6-foot-10, 289 lbs.) is averaging 2.2 points and 2.7 rebounds per game.

The play of Iverson and Walker has "been the difference in our play so far," Smith said.

By Steve Yanda  | November 29, 2010; 7:12 AM ET
Categories:  Men's Basketball  
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