Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

College Sports

November 21, 2010

Gophers, ‘Eers now getting noticed

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — They came to Puerto Rico unranked and, perhaps, a bit under-appreciated.

One of them will leave the island undefeated, a tournament champion out of a solid field, and will likely land in The Associated Press Top 25 poll.

Minnesota and West Virginia — Tubby vs. Huggy — have made Sunday’s championship in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament more about early season bragging rights. It’s given a glimpse of how good these teams can play and why this might not be the only tourney this season where they can go deep.

“We can’t be too excited about what we’re doing right now,” Minnesota guard Blake Hoffarber said.

It’s hard to believe him the way Golden Gophers hugged, high-fived and mobbed each other in front of their bench after they knocked off the No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels in coach Tubby Smith’s signature win since he took over in 2007.

At Coliseo de Puerto Rico, the Golden Gophers (4-0) totally shut down preseason All-America freshman Harrison Barnes and completely spoiled a tournament in which the Tar Heels were supposed to showcase their return to prominence.

Instead, it might be the Gophers time to shine.

Or the eight-team tournament might belong to the Mountaineers (3-0).

Coming off their first run to the Final Four since 1959, West Virginia lost top scorer and assists leader Da’Sean Butler, defensive specialist and leading rebounder Devin Ebanks and starting forward Wellington Smith. Coach Bob Huggins is finding new ways to get his team ready for another shot at playing into late March.

His latest find might be junior college transfer Casey Mitchell. Mitchell, a 6-foot-4 guard, played sparingly last year in his first season under Huggins and showed little of his sharp-shooting form.

He averaged 3.7 points last season — then was suspended early this season for violating team rules.

They sure needed him Friday against Vanderbilt. Mitchell shook off a slow start and scored a career-high 31 points and hit the winning 3-pointer in the final seconds to beat Vanderbilt.

“I watched some film and I wasn’t following through,” Mitchell said. “I’d just shoot it and put my hand down or shoot it and yank my arm back. So I just left it up there a couple times to see what it’d do and it went in.”

It’s up to Minnesota to make him a non-factor.

“They’ve got to be sky-high with the big win on a last-second shot, so they’ll come in with a lot of confidence,” Smith said.

Smith has his most talented team yet. Hoffarber, Trevor Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson III all put up huge numbers in the first two games in Puerto Rico.

Each coach has been to a Final Four: Smith won the 1998 national title at Kentucky; Huggins went last season and in 1992 with Cincinnati. Winning this tournament might be a blip in their careers, but could leave a sizable imprint on the path of their seasons.

“I don’t know if a championship is so special,” Hoffarber said. “Hopefully, we can keep winning.”

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