I’ll say it as bluntly as possible: The Gophers are lucky that they’re playing the easiest part of their schedule now while Al Nolen is on the shelf rather than three weeks from now.
Before this season there was a debate raging over whether Devoe Joseph or Al Nolen should handle the starting point guard duties for this season. The Joseph camp maintained that he was the only player on the team that could create his own shot (true) and had the offensive abilities that made him one of the more dynamic players on the team.
The Nolen side, and the side I was on, reminded everybody that Nolen, while not an offensive powerhouse by any stretch of the imagination, was a tactical floor general and team leader. Able to penetrate and collapse the defense, Nolen did more for the offense, and team, as a whole than people gave him credit for. My case-in-point was how the team performed last year after Nolen became academically ineligible. They made a miraculous run at the end of the season, but were merely clawing out of a rut they had fell into once Al hit the bench mid-way through the year.
Two games into the Nolen-less part of the season and were still being reminded just how important he is to the team on both sides of the ball and how vital he is to the team’s season hopes. Joseph, on the other hand, continues to look like an out-of-place shooting guard thrust into point guard duties.
I don’t want to discredit Joseph; he is an amazing player and an offensive presence that the team needs if it wants to compete in the upper echelon of the Big Ten. But he is no point guard, and the sooner Nolen gets back on the floor, the smoother the entire team will operate. Devoe creates his own shot, which is a big thing. However, that often means that he has to do a ton of dribbling around the court, a spin move and a drive to the basket in order to create that shot. That is not the point guard’s job. That type of behavior minimizes the rest of the offense, creates fewer high-percentage scoring opportunities and diminishes flow.
Granted, these games have been the first two for Joseph, but they were still against sub-par opponents and were opportunities to showcase his floor leadership. What we’re seeing instead are shades of Lawrence Westbrook (i.e. out of control, irresponsible drives; frustrating, low-percentage jump shots; an inability to really distribute the ball effectively, etc.), which is concerning. But it reveals that Joseph isn’t a solid replacement for Nolen. He can be an amazing player when not saddled with the responsibility to distribute the ball or move the offense, but rather when he is expected to do the scoring.
At the same time, both Virginia and Cornell have shot the lights out from beyond the arc, which is hard to defend. In fact, I’m willing to let teams try to beat the Gophers with the long ball. However, Nolen’s defensive presence has been sorely missed in these last two games in addition to his offensive leadership. When an opposing player gets hot, Al gets the responsibility of shutting that player down, and he does an incredible job of it. Farrakhan, for instance, from Virginia had a heyday with Nolen on the bench, and likely would have been diminished had Al been on the floor. Instead, he ran around open all night, eventually sinking the Gophers.
Minnesota still has three weeks before they open the Big Ten season against Wisconsin, and it’s unclear how healthy Nolen will be at that point. With him recovered and playing, the Gophers are a team capable of beating anyone on any given night. They have size, strength, speed, offense and strong defense. However, that machine needs oil to run smoothly, and Al is exactly that. Without him they are a clunky, leader-less squad that loses to Virginia at home and sneaks by a pretty bad Ivy League team.
Come back, Al!