The Minnesota Golden Gophers won their second straight game against a BCS conference team (albeit a bad one) on Saturday afternoon, and once again didn’t seem to miss their starting front line. The back court led by Julian Welch, who emerged as a scoring threat, and some timely three-point shooting by Austin Hollins, were almost all the team needed to beat USC. Rodney Williams, playing closer to the basket, had a 360 dunk and nearly a double-double. Elliot Eliason didn’t get many scoring chances, but aggressively crashed the boards and played good, smart defense by realizing that seven-footers don’t always need to jump. All things considered, it is hard to think of how the Gophers could have handled this situation better. Then you throw in the fact the Ralph Sampson III will soon be back, and there should be reason for something approaching optimism, but Sampson’s return raises a lot of questions for a lot of people. Many people are questioning if the Gophers would have beat Virginia Tech without the injured center. Others attribute the better functioning offense to his absence. Ralph Sampson III continues to be everybody’s favorite punching bag, presumably because he won’t fight back.
Ralph Sampson III is not above criticism. I still have a hard time believing that he has never averaged more than six-rebounds per game. With his height, long arms, and half-way decent vertical leap, seven rebounds per game should be no problem. He is also good for at least one embarrassing turnover per game, most likely a result of being stripped from behind by a player a foot shorter than him. No, he isn’t perfect, but he is far from the worst player on the team. He is a great shooter for someone his size, a good defender, and decent passer. He doesn’t deserve the vitriol. But does he deserve his spot back in the starting line-up.
Trevor Mbakwe’s injury, at least before the emergence of Elliot Eliason and Rodney Williams, seemed to hurt the Gophers most in terms of rebounding and toughness. Eliason brings the toughness, even if he couldn’t look more awkward mixing it up in the paint, and Williams finally decided that a 40 inch vertical leap could be used for something other than dunking. Sampson doesn’t fill any of these specific needs, but then again, he has never been asked to.
Much has been made about Rodney Williams being a more natural power forward than a small forward. Ralph Sampson may also be playing out of position. For his first three seasons with the team, he has never been the teams primary rebounded, never asked to play under the basket, and he has been encouraged, or at least not discouraged, to drift to the perimeter and look for his favorite 12-16 foot jumper. When paired with Colton Iverson and Trevor Mbakwe, Sampson never had to play the traditional role of a Big Ten big man, and even if he wanted to, there is only so much room under the basket. Trevor Mbakwe’s injury may give Sampson a chance to emerge along with Williams and Eliason.
Without Mbakwe, Tubby Smith scrapped his old throw it into the post and see what happens offense. This is a guards game now, and Smith has used Eliason to set screens, sometimes a dozen on a possession, rarely role to the basket, and more often than not be an outlet around the free-throw line and further back for guards that get in trouble. Out on the perimeter, there isn’t much he can do except wait for a guard to come get the ball. On several possessions he would pop out after setting a pick, and would be wide open from 15 or so feet, but despite his progression in almost every area of the game, he isn’t going to take that shot. Ralph Sampson III will, and he’ll make it too. Sampson can also roll to the basket, and can be a good player on the inside if he doesn’t have to have his back to the basket, and the new offense will allow those opportunities too.
The Gophers are going to need more than open 16 footers and weak side layups from Ralph Sampson III the rest of the season. They’ll need him to be tough. Too many people complain about his lack of emotion, that he looks asleep or somehow doesn’t care. Chest pounds aren’t worth bonus points and neither are screams and shouts after blocked shots and dunks. Sampson gets a free pass on blank facial expressions as long as there aren’t blanks in the box score. If he is going to play significant minutes once he returns from his ankle injury, he must crash the boards with abandon and play with decisiveness on both ends of the floor.
The Gophers have four more likely non-conference wins on the calendar before they open the Big Ten season at Illinois, where things have gone well approximately once in the last 20 years. There is still plenty of time for Sampson to get healthy and find his role on a team that is completely different from the last time he played a full game. There is plenty of time for him to discover the joy Rodney Williams has found in crashing the boards or the exuberance with which Elliot Eliason sets screen.
Elliot Eliason may be a great player some day, but he isn’t there yet. He is still a freshman with only five fouls per game. The Gophers absolutely need their lone remaining captain to play up to his potential, or at least his size, and get rebounds and create opportunities for the guards. If he can, Ralph Sampson III will still get enough 16 foot jumpers to lead the Gophers to a miraculous NCAA tournament. If he can’t adapt, or won’t take that next step, he might as well stay on the bench and give Eliason more time to prepare for next year.