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Gophers look for boost from freshmen

By Myron P. Medcalf

McClatchy-Tribune News Services

Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson are only freshmen.

But with their first regular season and conference tournament behind them, they’re beginning to sound like veterans.

In Thursday’s matchup against Texas (22-11) in the first round of the East Regional in Greensboro, N.C., they’ll face 6-10, 298-pound junior center Dexter Pittman, who nearly weighed more than the 6-10 Iverson and the 6-11 Sampson combined as a 370-pound freshman. But Sampson said he and Iverson have a few maneuvers planned that they hope will help neutralize him.

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"I think me and Colton, coming in as freshmen, we have, maybe, a few old (bags) of tricks that we keep with us that might work, so it’ll be an interesting matchup," Sampson said.

So what’s in that bag?

"You’ll have to wait and see because we have to take what they give us and defend against what they have for us," Sampson said.

A mixed bag

So far, it’s been a mixed bag for the freshman tandem, filled with impressive dunks, sweet hook shots, early foul trouble and missed free throws.

They made significant contributions for a Minnesota team headed to its first NCAA Ttournament since 2005. Sampson has averaged 6.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game; Iverson has accounted for 5.5 points and 3.5 rebounds.

Sampson and Iverson will have to rely on mental maturity to defend Pittman, who averaged 17.3 points and 11.0 rebounds during last week’s Big 12 tournament. Every

24-hour, all-you-can-eat buffet in North Carolina couldn’t help these youngsters pack on enough pounds in time to physically match up with Pittman. And when Pittman rests — he averages only 16 minutes a game, although that’s increased lately — the Longhorns can call on 6-10 senior Connor Atchley, who leads Texas in blocks.

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Still, the Gophers youngsters are confident, and that’s a good start for a pair of freshmen on such a big stage.

They’ve found a way to give Minnesota some of the most important minutes of their young careers in recent weeks, too.

When the NCAA tournament selection committee made the Gophers one of its final picks Sunday, the significance of last week’s Big Ten tournament became more clear.

Without a Thursday victory over Northwestern in the opening round, Minnesota (22-10) would likely have missed the NCAA cut.

And without Iverson and Sampson playing the way they did, the Gophers might not have earned that victory. Iverson’s hustle led to three key steals. With Northwestern fighting back late in the game, Sampson’s three-point play helped the Gophers take a late lead and turned the momentum back in Minnesota’s favor. Sampson blocked a school Big Ten tournament-record five shots in the game.

Come out physical

Iverson sees Minnesota’s matchup against Texas as another opportunity for he and Sampson to show signs of progress. More importantly, he knows the game could be decided based on what happens in the paint. He wants to make sure Minnesota strikes first.

"We’ve got to come out the most physical team, and we have to come out hitting first," he said. "We can’t be hit and just lay down and die. We have to go out and fight right away."

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No one will confuse Minnesota’s freshman post players with Pitt’s DeJuan Blair and Sam Young or even Illinois’ Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis. Sampson and Iverson have a long way to go.

But history proves that height matters in the NCAA tournament. Every NCAA champion since 2005 has had one player 6-9 or taller score at least 16 points in the title game.

They’re not, however, under the same pressure as some of the other inside players in the NCAA tournament. Gophers coach Tubby Smith’s defense tries to ensure that shots in the paint are challenged often — and not just by the post players. He favors inside production on offense. But the only way the system works is with the contribution of all five players.

"We never feel like one guy can stop any other guy, and I’m sure our players feel the same way about their ability," Smith said. "So (it’ll) take a team effort to help them inside, which is the way our defense is geared anyway. ... Whenever the ball’s thrown in the post, and (there’s) not somebody down there to help them, usually that person’s coming out of the game."

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