Of all the returning players on the Golden Gopher basketball team, Rodney Williams has seen arguably the biggest jump in production between last season and this season. The 6-7 junior moved to the power forward position after Trevor Mbakwe's ACL injury, and has looked comfortable at that spot on the court. And his contributions are not just on the offensive end of the court--Williams is the team leader in steals.
Q: This year, your production has increased in basically all statistical areas. How much of that do you attribute to skill development, and how much to an increase in confidence?
A: I think it's just more about confidence for me. I know last year a lot of times I was really inconsistent just because of my confidence level. So I think this year it's more of a confidence thing.
Q: Your numbers especially went up in the first few games following Trevor Mbakwe's injury. Did anyone talk to you about stepping up, or was that something you just took upon yourself?
A: It was about 50-50. I've been getting people telling me that I need to step up since freshman year, but I never really gave myself enough confidence. I think it was pretty equal.
Q: You already have more steals than you had all of last season. Talk a little about your mentality on defense.
A: I think I've been here long enough to get Coach Smith's defense down and how he likes it. I think it's just more me just buckling down and paying attention more when it comes to the defensive end.
Q: Before the season, coach Tubby Smith mentioned working with you to change your shooting form. Has that still been a focus during the season?
A: We're still focused on it pretty heavily, but I haven't really taken as many jump shots, especially now being in the post. But in practice, we get after it. When we do shooting stuff, he's right there, right next to me, telling me what I need to fix. Like I said, it's a slow transition, but it's happening.
Q: What was going through your mind leading up to your 360 dunk against USC?
A: Andre Hollins and I got the trap. Then when the USC player fell with it, Dre kind of tipped a pass, and he was the one who yelled out, "Showtime!" So then, as soon as he said that, I knew that I had to get a 360 at home, because I hadn't gotten a fancy breakaway dunk for the crowd at home yet. So I knew which one I wanted to do.
Q: Another dunk that had everyone talking was your dunk over two people wearing chicken and pig suits at All-Star Friday Night back in October. How did you get the idea for that dunk?
A: They actually showed up while we were doing media stuff. So then coach Joe Esposito was like, "Why don't you just jump over the chicken?" I was like, "Alright." And once (All-Star Friday Night) started, I was like, "Man, I already jumped over Goldy, so just the chicken wouldn't be too exciting." Then Coach Esposito came up to me and told me to go grab both of them, so I grabbed both of them, and that was it.
Q: Do you feel like you should have won the contest instead of Joe Coleman?
A: No, because I didn't finish my (other) dunk. So he got it fair and square.
Q: How high is your vertical leap?
A: Last I checked it was about 36 inches. It's not as high as people think it is.
Q: Now that you are a junior, you have traveled to three early-season tournaments in warm locations. Which was your favorite?
A: Definitely Puerto Rico. I had been to California and Florida before, so that wasn't new to me, especially the Milk House (in Orlando). I played there so many times as a young kid. Puerto Rico, that was just fun, because that was my first time there. All you do is hear about that--you never really think you're going to get a chance to go out there. And then we won the tournament, so that definitely puts that above all of them.
Q: Eligibility-wise, you would be the only junior on the team if Julian Welch and Andre Ingram had not transferred. Is it nice to have them around?
A: It is kind of nice to have those other guys around. You kind of feel a little lonely at that junior spot. So it's fun. ...It's just nice to have some guys that have been through school and basketball as long as I have.
Williams Arena's elevated floor is one of the most well-known, unique features of the venue. This week in "Barnstorming," radio play-by-play man Mike Grimm walks in the footsteps of an opposing player as he comes upstairs from the locker room area to the court. Grimm also finds out what was found under the original Barn court while it was being replaced a few years ago.
To watch previous episodes of "Barnstorming with Grimm" visit http://z.umn.edu/barnstorming.
A win would have put the Golden Gophers at .500 in three categories. But with tonight's loss, they are now 4-6 in Big Ten play, 3-4 in road games, and 0-2 against Iowa this season.
Success Behind the Arc
One positive statistic from tonight's tough loss is Minnesota's 10-for-19 three-point shooting performance. This was the first time all season that the Gophers made 10 or more triples. The last time they accomplished that feat was when they shot 10-for-23 against Michigan State in the 2010 Big Ten Tournament. Tonight, Julian Welch and Austin Hollins each made three, while four other Gophers added one apiece.
Welch made three of the Gophers' 10 three-pointers.
Free throws played a large role in tonight's game. Free throw shooting was just about even in the first half (3-for-5 for Minnesota and 3-for-4 for Iowa), but the Hawkeyes had the advantage in the second period. An abundance of whistles against the Gophers put Iowa in the bonus before the first media timeout of the second half. During the half, Iowa made it to the line 22 times, connecting on 14 of those attempts. Minnesota did not draw as many fouls and finished just 6-for-9 during the second period.
A Little R & R
Ralph Sampson III and Rodney Williams Jr. were instrumental in the Gophers' comeback during the first half. Each had his own run of three consecutive field goals, and each scored seven points in the period, helping the Gophers claw back to lead by a score of 27-24 at halftime. Sampson made the Gophers' first three field goals for seven of their first eight points. Without their offense, the game would not have been competitive in the first half. Sampson ended up with 13 points for the game.
The Gophers added to their conference-leading block total, and Ralph Sampson III moved up on Minnesota's career blocks list. With a pair of swats tonight, Sampson claimed sole possession of third place in school history at 193 career blocks. He trails just Kevin McHale (235) and Randy Breuer (229). As a team, the Gophers have piled up 126 blocks so far this season (5.5 per game). They led the Big Ten in that category the past three seasons.
Two of the Gopher starters (Austin Hollins with 14 and Joe Coleman with 11) reached double figures in scoring, but the story of the night was the Gopher bench. Minnesota's reserves provided 20 of the team's 30 first-half points, and outscored Illinois's bench, 39-9, for the game. Chip Armelin led the way with 14 points, including a career-high three three-pointers, while also adding seven rebounds. Andre Hollins also reached double figures from the bench, with 12 points. He was on the court for the crucial final minutes of the game.
Armelin led the Gopher reserves with 14 points.
On the stat sheet, these plays will just read as two assists and a block, but Armelin and Elliott Eliason provided some highlight reel-worthy plays in the first half of tonight's game. Illinois's Meyers Leonard appeared to have a fairly easy basket, but Eliason blocked his dunk attempt out of bounds.
Armelin's first assist came on a fast break. Running down the right side, he cupped the ball in his hand and then delivered a behind-the-back pass to Oto Osenieks for the basket. On his second assist, he received a pass on a backdoor cut and then delivered it to Eliason for an alley-oop dunk. That was Eliason's first career dunk.
In Champaign during December, the Golden Gophers fell to Illinois in double overtime, so it seems only fitting that they would earn payback in an extra period. Both of Minnesota's overtime games this year have been against the Fighting Illini. The last Golden Gopher overtime win came against Michigan State in the 2010 Big Ten Tournament. Minnesota defeated the Spartans by a score of 72-67.
The last time the Gophers played two overtime games against the same opponent in a season was 1977. They lost, 66-64, at Purdue on Jan. 15, 1977, and beat the Boilermakers at home on Feb. 24 by a score of 84-78. Incidentally, the Gophers had also played two overtime games against Purdue in 1976.
Tonight's loss to Michigan State snapped the Golden Gophers' three-game win streak. It was also the first time since the loss at Illinois that Minnesota's field goal shooting dipped below 40 percent. The Gophers shot 18-47 (.383) against the Spartans, following their season-best shooting performance against Northwestern (.577).
Williams led the Gophers with 15 points.
Breslin Center Hex Continues
The Gophers have struggled against the Spartans in recent years, and that is especially true of road meetings. Minnesota's last official victory in East Lansing was on Feb. 1, 1990. Two more recent Breslin Center wins came during vacated seasons.
Williams Comes Out Firing
The score stayed close early in the contest largely because of Rodney Williams. The junior forward scored eight of the Gophers' first 10 points. Minnesota's first six points came on three-pointers by Williams. He made a career-high third three-pointer later on in the game. The last time Williams hit more than one three in a game was in the win at Michigan on Jan. 22, 2011.
Milestone for Izzo
With this win over the Gophers, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo became the fourth coach to reach 400 wins at a Big Ten school. Bob Knight (661 wins at Indiana), Gene Keady (512 at Purdue), and Lou Henson (423 at Illinois) are the other coaches who accomplished that feat. Now in his 17th year with the Spartans, Izzo's career record stands at 400-165.
Julian Welch is in his first season as a Golden Gopher, but he is the oldest member of the team's guard corps. The junior transfer has taken on a leadership role, starting all eight of Minnesota's Big Ten contests so far and averaging 11.5 points in those games. In the video above, Welch talks about being a leader, his California roots, and more.
This week in "Barnstorming," Mike Grimm visits the Williams Arena film room. The radio voice of the Golden Gophers explains the various amenities of the room, which was part of the renovations to the Barn in the 2000s.
Junior forward Rodney Williams is one of the featured individuals on the most recent episode of BTN's documentary series "Big Ten Basketball: The Journey." The episode made its debut during a special Saturday night time, and will re-air Monday at 5:30 p.m. CT. Williams talked about not just his dunks, but also about his all-around game. Trevor Mbakwe also made appearances on the show for the feature. Bonus video from BTN's interview with Williams is embedded above.
This 23-point win was the Gophers' most decisive conference win of the season. Minnesota had not defeated a conference opponent by 20 or more points since the 2010 Big Ten Tournament, where the Gophers dominated Purdue, 69-42. Their last regular season Big Ten win by 20 or more was that season, too. They beat Iowa, 88-53 on senior day.
Home Sweet Home
Before today, it had been almost a year since Minnesota's last Big Ten victory at Williams Arena. The opponent on Jan. 26, 2011 was Northwestern. Today, the Gophers snapped a seven-game conference home losing streak by defeating the Wildcats again.
Welch's 14 points helped the Gophers to their first home Big Ten win since 2011.
While the Gopher bench made meaningful contributions, the starters definitely carried the Gophers in the scoring department today. All five members of the starting lineup scored in double figures, with Joe Coleman (16) leading the way. Coleman is averaging 15.3 points in four games as a starter, and has shot 29-of-35 from the free throw line in those games.
Cold Start for the 'Cats
For nearly the first eight minutes of the game, the basket appeared to have a lid on it for Northwestern. The Wildcats started out shooting 0-for-14 before Davide Curletti scored at the 12:11 mark. For the rest of the half, Northwestern shot 9-of-16. The Wildcats ended up at 18-of-55 from the field on the game.
Dozens of Gopher basketball alumni took in the action at Williams Arena today. Randy Chall, a 2004 graduate, started things off by singing the national anthem before the game. Former players, coaches, and managers from each decade going back to the 1950s
were honored on the court at halftime.
Coming into this season, Walker and the staff were uncertain about whether or not he would play during his true sophomore year. He continued to rehab his knee, and had worked his way back to near full participation in team practices. Walker even suited up for a handful of games.
Walker will be a redshirt sophomore in 2012-13.
"We were just kind of playing it by ear, day by day, to see how my knee was recovering and how it was doing strength-wise," Walker said. "(The trainers and coaches) just don't feel like it's ready yet. They want to wait until I'm 100 percent before I play again."
Walker, who gave the Gophers quality minutes off the bench last season, would have been nice to have this year, especially with senior forward Trevor Mbakwe out with an ACL tear. Smith said that Walker likely would have been ready for the beginning of Big Ten play had he not suffered a minor setback in rehab during November.
But after being forced to tone down the intensity of his workouts for several weeks back in the beginning of non-conference play, Smith said Walker was not close enough to being ready to play until about this point in the season. Already a third of the way through the conference schedule, Walker and the staff felt it would be, as Smith put it, "a waste of a year to play him."
"It's the best thing to do, and I think he has accepted it well," Smith said. "He's working extremely hard with (strength & conditioning coach) Kevin Kocos and (athletic trainer) Roger Schipper."
As for his knee, Walker said, "It feels good right now, but there are still some strength issues, and still slight pain at times." He has tried to maintain a positive attitude about the rehab process, although it is difficult to just sit and watch. There are times when he wishes he could be on the court, but he has accepted the decision to redshirt.
"I feel like I could help, but there's nothing I can really do about it except for encourage my teammates and try to pick them up," he said.
Mbakwe update: Trevor Mbakwe is also going through the rehab process, for a more recent knee injury suffered in Novemeber. He is enrolled in spring classes and is still cheering on his teammates at games. He has not yet told the coaching staff what he plans to do next year. Mbakwe has the option of petitioning the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility.
"He probably needs (the petition) done now so he can determine what he needs to do," Smith said.
If a sixth year is granted, Mbakwe will still have time to decide whether he wants to accept it or explore his options of a post-collegiate basketball career.