By Jon Krawczynski, AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS -- A limp here. A shake of the wrist there.
Playing point guard in the rugged Big Ten could be starting to take its toll on Minnesota senior Blake Hoffarber.
Tubby Smith knows he's putting a lot of responsibility on the senior's shoulders, and the Minnesota coach is starting to get concerned the biggest key to the Gophers' success is starting to wear down as tournament time approaches.
The switch from shooting guard to point guard after Al Nolen went down with an injury last month has put the ball in Hoffarber's hands much more and really changed his role from a spot-up shooter to the guy who gets everyone else involved.
"I really don't know that it's hurting his shooting because he's getting his shots up," Smith said during the Big Ten teleconference on Monday. "But it probably is wearing him down more."
Hoffarber has played at least 34 of 40 minutes in nine of Minnesota's 11 Big Ten games this season, and the wear and tear started to show during the loss Sunday to No. 1 Ohio State.
Hoffarber limped through the second half on a sore knee and also shook his wrist in pain after running into the post under the basket. He shrugged off the injury as "something flukey" after practice on Wednesday and said there is no doubt he'll be ready to play against Illinois on Thursday night.
"I feel pretty good. I don't feel like I'm wearing down or anything like that," Hoffarber said. "We all have to keep a positive attitude and take care of business here coming up."
The Gophers (16-7, 5-6 Big Ten) have lost three straight games and need a victory over the Illini (15-8, 5-5) to steady themselves.
If anyone knows what Hoffarber is going through, it's Nolen, the team's starting point guard for most of the last three years. Hoffarber has been playing point guard full-time ever since Nolen went down with a broken foot against Michigan on Jan. 22.
"It's very demanding physically, trying to play in the Big Ten night-in and night-out, playing defense, getting your shots off," Nolen said. "He's playing a lot of minutes now that I'm out. It wears you down mentally and physically. ... He's a tough guy and he'll be able to get through it."
Hoffarber doesn't figure to get much help anytime soon. Freshmen Maverick Ahanmisi and Chip Armelin have done their best to fill in occasionally during the game, but it's clear the youngsters aren't quite ready for big minutes in the Big Ten. And Nolen is nowhere close to returning from an injury that he says still causes him pain almost three weeks later.
But the question isn't when Nolen will be back, it's if. That means the job is all Hoffarber's for now. He is clearly one of the smartest players on the team and has made a fairly smooth transition from shooter to facilitator.
Make no mistake, Hoffarber is still pulling the trigger. He leads the team in scoring with 14.2 points per game and has taken at least 10 shots in every game since he took over at point guard.
Nolen said he thought Hoffarber has been doing a "really good job" with the position switch, and Smith agreed.
"He's been unbelievable," Smith said. "He's carrying a major load. When he's playing well, we're playing well."