As if the hits wouldn’t stop coming for Minnesota, it’s starting to look like a distinct possibility that Al Nolen could be lost for the rest of the season due to academic ineligibility. The full story is still coming together, and it’s possible that he might find himself off the hook due to an NCAA loophole, but it might be time for Gopher Nation to start imagining a life without Al.
As it stands, Nolen is currently ineligible due to his academic shortcomings and will almost definitely miss Saturday’s Michigan State game. However, the University and Nolen are maintaining that his academic struggles have stemmed from “extenuating family circumstances” which could provide a legitimate reason for his poor schoolwork. If it turns out that Nolen did, in fact, struggle due to family strife he might find himself back on the team quite soon should the NCAA uphold a recent “progress-toward-degree” waiver that the University submitted on his behalf.
As we wait for the story to evolve and come together (which, based on the Royce White situation, could be later rather than sooner) I want to focus on what the team will look like on Saturday and possibly for the rest of the season. The Nolen vacuum will likely be filled with some combination of Justin Cobbs and Devoe Joseph, two guys have performed below expectations through much of the year. While, Joseph showed life in the Indiana loss, Cobbs has looked too much like an inexperienced freshman for much of the season. It’s easy to be less than thrilled with the current situation.
My question, though, is this: Is the Nolen loss really all that bad?
My answer: no…and here’s why. What we have right now is an underachieving team with no half-court offense who is sitting squarely on the bubble of the NCAA tournament. The way the Gophers are playing makes them look less and less likely that a tournament berth is attainable (the Indiana loss hurts bad). With that being said, what’s the harm in switching up who runs the offense and giving a couple guys who have shown flashed of talent the chance to prove themselves? The downside is very small while the reward could be quite large. With Devoe/Cobbs getting more playing time, who’s to say that some new chemistry can’t develop? Sure, the hit that we take on defense isn’t something to look forward to, but the offense is in dire need of a shakeup.
Of course it’s much more desirable to have Al Nolen out there running the show and wreaking havoc on defense, but losing him is far from the end of the world for Minnesota, and could even serve as an opportunity to reshape the offense and provide a spark to a team that has been lacking much offensive excitement.