Notebook: Knee injury could sideline Ralph Sampson III for game
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Gophers men's basketball team could be without center Ralph Sampson III for their opening game in the Big Ten tournament on Thursday against Northwestern in Indianapolis.
Coach Tubby Smith announced after practice Wednesday that Sampson tweaked his knee on Monday and hasn't practiced since. The senior was at practice shooting free throws with a knee brace on Wednesday, but Smith said he hasn't practiced since the injury occurred and he will be questionable for Thursday's game.
"Ralph Sampson tweaked his knee, so I am not sure about his status for (Thursday's) game," Smith said. "He has been out of practice the last couple days. But the kids are ready, we are ready."
After the Gophers' victory over Nebraska on Saturday in their Big Ten regular-season finale, Smith said he was looking forward to coaching his lone healthy senior into the postseason but that looks to be very much up in the air at this point. Smith said if Sampson can't play, then freshman Elliott Eliason will get the start at center.
Eliason has been a pleasant surprise this season for the Gophers, offering a physical presence and gritty play that Sampson often lacked. The freshman has started four games this season but all came in the double-digit blowouts during non-conference play.
Eliason, who, like Sampson, was not made available for comment Wednesday, is averaging 13.5 minutes off the bench and scoring 2.4 points and grabbing 3.6 rebounds in 31 games. But despite his lack of experience, Rodney Williams has confidence in Eliason if his number is called.
"Ralph is definitely a big part of this basketball team, but when he was out earlier this season Elliott stepped up and played real big, everyone did I think," Williams said. "We are just going to need the same thing from everybody, to just play their game and have fun."
If Sampson can't play, Williams -- already the team's leading scorer -- becomes the most tenured Gopher as a junior. Williams and Austin Hollins would be the only two starters with any tournament experience.
"I am going to need to hit the boards better and be more aggressive because Ralph scored the basketball for us," Williams said. "I think me and everybody else is going to have to pick up that slack."
Back to basics
The Gophers were on a six-game Big Ten losing streak and their season was mirroring the collapse of a year ago when the team lost its final five conference games and the Big Ten tournament opener to Northwestern -- their same opponent this season.
Desperate to shake something up and avoid a second consecutive season where his team wouldn't even get invited to the NIT, Smith said he "went back to basics" and began practicing twice a day leading to last Saturday's victory over Nebraska.
"I just felt like we needed (the Nebraska) game and when we played Indiana we played so poorly and didn't seem to have any focus at all," Smith said.
Smith was happy with the results of the change and kept it going this week leading into the Northwestern game -- a team the Gophers split with in the regular season.
"I tell the guys that we are starting a new season," Smith said, "we expect to be playing a long time so you have to go back to the basics and go back and look at your mechanics, shooting, passing all the fundamentals and that's why we went (to two practices)."
The two-a-day practices -- much like college football and basketball teams run before the season -- aren't a daily occurrence but have been used to get the players out of bed and on the court in an attempt to clean up their Big Ten-worst 14.1 turnovers per game.
"We have been having two-a-days off and on," Julian Welch said. "Getting more focused, coming in and doing a lot of skill work in the morning.
"If you love basketball, you love getting up in the morning at six a.m. You don't have anything else to do but sleep."
Williams said he was caught off guard by the decision to go back to two practices a day and wasn't as enthused about his alarm clock going off as Welch was, but he said he can't argue with the dividends it paid in a win against Nebraska where they scored 81 points -- a high for them in the Big Ten.
"Nobody likes getting up at six in the morning, but it worked out pretty good for us in the Nebraska game," Williams said. "We have been up early this week too, so hopefully we can take that momentum from the Nebraska game into the game (Thursday) against Northwestern."
Another surprising change Smith made before the Nebraska game was to have the team stay in a hotel despite playing at Williams Arena. This is a practice common for college football teams, but something Smith hadn't done this season. Smith decided it was a move he had to make after complaining about distractions his team was facing during their losing streak.
"We spent a lot of time together, we ate dinner together and then spent time in the rooms before we went to bed," Williams said. "I don't know. I think just us being together and spending more time together has helped us on the court."
Welch hasn't played since the first half of the Feb. 26 loss to Indiana at Williams Arena because of a hip injury but he said he has practiced all week and is ready to play against the Wildcats. Welch will come off the bench.
"Yeah, that is the plan," to come off the bench, Welch said. "I am just looking forward to playing rather than sitting on the bench."
Freshman Andre Hollins has started at point guard the last three games in Welch's absence and has played some of the his best basketball in a Gophers uniform, averaging 12 points and two assists in 27 minutes. Most importantly, Smith said Hollins has begun showing the leadership skills necessary to lead this team.
Welch and his 10.2 points per game will add a scoring punch and also provide depth at point guard if Hollins once again gets in foul trouble. The freshman picked up 10 fouls in the past three games combined.