No question, this Gopher has game
Kris Humphries was good, the Minnesota players knew that.
They had played pickup games with him. They had gone en masse to Hopkins High School in suburban Minneapolis to watch him, as well as give him a not-so-subtle hint that they'd like him as a teammate. They had seen him sign with Duke and receive the McDonald's All-American stamp of approval.
So when Humphries, a muscular 6-foot-8 forward, decided to pass on Duke and stay home and play for the Gophers, his teammates knew he brought game. But they also were quick to point out that he was still a freshman. Translation: Yes, he'd look great at times, but he'd also get abused, frustrated and shut down at other times.
Maybe that will happen in the Big Ten season, because it certainly hasn't happened yet.
Instead of being up-and-down, Humphries has been amazingly steady. Because as impressive as his 23.9 points and 11.2 rebounds per game are, the way he's amassed those stats might be more impressive.
Humphries has six double-doubles in Minnesota's eight games. He's scored at least 20 points in all but one game. He went for 32 and 13 in a nationally televised game at Virginia. He's grabbed as many as 15 rebounds in a game, but never fewer than seven. He's shooting just less than 53 percent from the floor. He's been more reliable than the Minneapolis snowplows.
"I don't think anybody thought he was this good," Minnesota guard Moe Hargrow said. "The first game when he put up those big numbers, it was, 'OK, he had a good night.' Then when he kept putting up the same numbers, it was incredible."
Said Gophers guard Ben Johnson: "It hasn't been just his first couple of games. It hasn't been against people he should do it against, it's been against everybody, it's been in practice and it's been every day almost."
As a result, Humphries -- a player of whom the double-double has become almost expected -- is fourth nationally in rebounding and tied for sixth in scoring. Currently leading the Big Ten in both categories, Humphries is attempting to become the first freshman to lead the conference in scoring since Michael Redd (21.9 in 1998). Chris Webber (10.0 in 1992) is the last freshman to lead the league in rebounding. No freshman has ever led the conference in both categories.
While Humphries is much of the reason why the Gophers are 6-2 this season, he's doing his best to fit in with the team. He's done a good job sharing the ball, he hasn't forced many shots for a player scoring so frequently, and he's tried to pass credit to his teammates.
Instead of talking about points, Humphries has talked repeatedly about wanting to break the Big Ten and school records for rebounding.
"If I play hard and get to the boards, the points will come," said Humphries, who began working out with former NBA players Trent Tucker and Chris Car while still in high school.
So far, Humphries has gotten most of his points within 10 feet of the basket, but he can put the ball on the floor and has range out to the 3-point line. "I think how's he's playing is exactly how I envisioned it," said Gophers coach Dan Monson, who wants to see Humphries improve defensively. "He's unstoppable when he gets the ball on his terms, and he gets the ball where we want him to get it.
"His game reminds me, and this is dangerous, but I compare him to a young Karl Malone," Monson adds cautiously. "His strength is finishing around the basket. It's what he does. But his perimeter game will get better and better, and make people honor that."
As productive as Humphries will be -- he's the nation's leading freshman scorer -- things are going to get more challenging. The more film coaches get on Humphries, the more different defensive looks he'll see.
On Monday night, Duquesne might have done as good of a job as any team this season. The Dukes played a sagging 2-3 zone that kept the Gophers from getting anything going offensively. When Minnesota was unable to get good ball movement, Humphries didn't get many touches near the basket.
"In the first half, I probably forced a lot," Humphries said. "But they were also playing good defense.
"I was frustrated, I wasn't finishing shots inside that I know I can make."
Humphries adjusted nicely after the first 20 minutes, scoring 18 of his 20 points in the second half. He once again played a big role in the Gophers erasing an 18-point deficit and winning in overtime.
Current Duquesne and former Nebraska coach Danny Nee was certainly impressed.
"Humphries is a man and he's going to be a NBA draft choice," said Nee, who played high school basketball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he was still known as Lew Alcindor. "Enjoy him real quick because he's going to be gone by the time you have a cup of coffee. He's pretty damn good."
And why is that?
"His footwork is excellent and he's in slow motion out there," Nee said. "Everybody else is running around like a chicken with their head cut off and he's in slow motion. He's like a great running back finding the holes & he's just as calm as can be."
All that makes him pretty good ... for a freshman.
Indiana's first nine games of this season have't been quite as low-scoring as during the Norman Dale-Jimmy Chitwood era at Hickory High, but Mike Davis' offense hasn't exactly been lighting things up, either.
When the Hoosiers scored 77 points in Tuesday's victory over Morehead State, it ended a streak of five consecutive games in which Indiana was held to fewer than 70 points. It was the first time the Hoosiers had streak of five such games since the 1983-84 season. Even with the victory over Morehead State, the Hoosiers are still 10th in the Big Ten in scoring offense (64.6 ppg). Only Penn State is scoring fewer points per game.
What does that mean? Yes, Bill Carmody's Princeton offense at Northwestern is producing more points than Indiana.
In the Hoosiers' five games this season against major conference opponents, the numbers are even more staggering. Indiana hasn't scored more than 67 points against a major conference opponent (a victory at Notre Dame) and the Hoosiers are averaged only 57.8 points in games with Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Missouri, Kentucky and the Irish.
Last weekend's loss to Kentucky was clearly the low point of the season for the Hoosiers. In the embarrassing 80-41 loss, Indiana made only 15 of 62 shots (a frigid 24.2 percent). It was a game that prompted Davis to juggle his lineup. Against Morehead State, sophomore guard Marshall Strickland didn't start for the first time this season, replaced by former walk-on Ryan Tapak
While a knee injury to George Leach has been a factor for the Hoosiers, so has poor shooting. Indiana hasn't shot 50 percent from the floor in a single game this season and the Hoosiers are last in the Big Ten in that category. The Hoosiers nearly made half of their shots against Morehead State, shooting 46.9 percent from the floor.
"We were focused," Davis said after the game. "Against Kentucky we missed five or six early layups and if we had made those, then who knows. We have guys that need games like this to be better basketball players ... I think this helped the guy's confidence."
That confidence needs to grow as the upcoming schedule is not easy for the Hoosiers. After a game at North Texas, Indiana hosts Temple (not exactly the best opponent for a struggling offense) and then the Hoosiers begin Big Ten play by playing four of their first five games on the road.
Even so, it was the biggest victory since arriving in Green Bay for Phoenix coach Tod Kowalczyk.
"I'd be kidding if I said this wasn't a special win," Kowalczyk said after the game.
Green Bay -- which recently snapped a 17-game road losing streak -- hadn't won at Butler since 1996, and a Phoenix trip to Indianapolis usually turned into a blowout. The loss leaves Butler in a difficult spot. Last spring's NCAA tournament darlings are now 4-5 on the season (0-1 in the Horizon League) and the Bulldogs are facing a four-game road trip.
"Unless we look at ourselves in the mirror and figure out what each and every one of us has to do, this isn't going to change," Butler's Mike Monserez told The Indianapolis Star.
|Games to Watch|
UCLA at Michigan, Saturday
Can the Wolverines do what their in-state rival Michigan State couldn't do and beat the Bruins?
Missouri at Memphis, Saturday
Will the Missouri Tigers inside strength with Arthur Johnson and Linas Kleiza be the difference? Or will it be the guards of the Memphis Tigers?
Nebraska at Minnesota, Monday
Are the Cornhuskers really improved from a year ago. Nebraska has a nice record, but Barry Collier's team hasn't faced the best competition. A victory at Williams Arena -- one of the Big Ten's toughest places to play -- would provide some validity.
Games at San Diego State and at Virginia in the next 10 days will give us a better idea of where the Cyclones are, but Iowa State has certainly started faster than most people thought. How has it happened? The Cyclones offense is now about more than just Jake Sullivan. Six players are averaging between 9.3 and 14.4 points per game. That has made ISU more difficult to defend.
"They were tougher," Flames coach Jimmy Collins said after the game. "They were more athletic than we were. They were awful doggone quick. They just beat us every which way but loose."
"I don't think people understand how much heat he's catching. But he's strong and he just wants us to play hard no matter what. I think he's got all of our attention and we believe in him now."
-- Illinois guard Dee Brown on the importance of Tuesday's victory over Missouri when it comes to first-year Illini coach Bruce Weber.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com
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