Today was Senior Day at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, and it marked the end of a very disappointing season for my favorite college basketball team. The team had what seemed like realistic expectations to finally take that “next step” with a winning record in conference play and hopefully a win or two in postseason play, but unfortunately, despite the great start to the season, it didn’t materialize. One of the biggest reasons the Gophers had such expectations this year, was because it was mostly a veteran team, led by their all-senior starting backcourt of Blake Hoffarber and Al Nolen. I want to thank Blake and Al for what they did for Minnesota Basketball the last four years. Both from Minnesota, they decided to stay home and play at the Barn back when Dan Monson was running the show, and decided to stick with the school through the coaching change.
What made Blake and Al such a good team, was that they were such perfect compliments of each other. The point guard and the shooting guard. The lock-down on-ball defender, and the crafty team defender. The ball-handler and the pure shooter. But one thing Blake and Al had in common was that they were both unselfish, great passers. They understood their roles on the team, and gave Tubby what he needed to run his offensive and defensive systems. One of the buzzkills of this season was when junior combo-guard Devoe Joseph decided to transfer out of the program. There are a lot of possibilities for why Devoe decided to transfer, but my theory all along has been that he wasn’t happy with his minutes and absence in the starting lineup. I can understand his frustration, because I believe as an individual, Devoe is a better player than either Blake or Al, but his skill set overlaps both of theirs, and if you started him over either one of them, you’d have a more talented backcourt, but it would be somewhat incomplete. I liken it to a Venn diagram, where Devoe is clearly the middle piece. So when Devoe decided he needed to find greener pastures elsewhere, I was really disappointed, but more so for next season when I knew he would be our best offensive player and get to shoot 15-20 times a night since we were covered this year with our seniors. Of course, I could not foresee the injury that would end up dismantling our team when Nolen broke his foot in Ann Arbor. I guess the team’s 2-8 record after Nolen going down is the best proof of just how valuable he was to our team. It really is a sad way for Al to have to end his career as a Gopher, but almost as sad is what Hoffarber had to endure on the court without him. Blake was the only guard on the team that wasn’t a freshman after Al’s injury, and thus was forced to play out of position, which hurt his own production dearly, and was glaringly obvious at the end of games when good looks at the basket are tough to come by and require a true ball-handling distributor to facilitate open shots. But enough about this season’s disappointments.
These two will go down as tied for my second favorite Gophers of all time (Damian Johnson is #1, I haven’t been a true Gopher fan for very long, mind you), and they’ve brought me many great memories. Blake started his career at Minnesota by knocking down tons of open 3 pointers, and used that amazingly-quick release to knock down tough shots all four years to become the Gophers’ all-time leading 3 point shooter. Al was among the Big Ten leaders in steals each year and helped Tubby’s full court presses work with his awesome quick feet and hands, leading to countless uncontested lay-ups and dunks. Blake had is unforgettable game-winner in the Big Ten Tournament quarter-finals that Gopher fans can always cherish, and Nolen was the catalyst in some of Minnesota’s biggest wins these last four years, especially against #9 Louisville in 2008 (Pitino openly acknowledged that Nolen’s quickness was too much for his players to handle), and over UNC and WVU this year in Puerto Rico (Blake was huge in all three of those games as well, but if you watched the games, Al set the tone for the team).
Unfortunately for these two, the dream season never fully came together, and the Gophers ended up going 0-2 in the NCAA tournament during their time at the U of M. But what they did was help lay the foundation for the rebuilding of the Minnesota program, and it perhaps helped Minnesota kids to consider becoming a Golden Gopher some day rather than leaving the state to play big time college basketball (Royce White and Rodney Williams already followed in their footsteps back in 2009). Their contributions will not be forgotten by this fan, and I wish them the very best in what they choose to do with their lives.
I have the highest of hopes for Al and the team’s sake that he can get a chance to play in the Big Ten Tournament this week, and you never know what could happen with him back in the lineup. I’m not counting this team out yet if he could play, and so I will conclude this post with a giant “Thank You” to Al and Blake, but also, a plea to the entire team to keep on pushing and play for that championship. Nolen and Hoffarber deserve it.