MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota's push for postseason position will go on, for the second straight year, without Al Nolen.
This time, though, the Gophers don't have the same depth to compensate for the loss of one of their leaders.
Nolen needs surgery on his broken right foot, raising the question about whether the senior point guard will be able to play again for 16th-ranked Minnesota with only six weeks remaining before the tournament season begins.
Coach Tubby Smith, who revealed the news Monday on a conference call with Big Ten reporters, mentioned four weeks as a benchmark but said it was too soon to speculate about how long Nolen would be out.
"That's a real blow to us," Smith said.
Last year, Nolen was ruled academically ineligible at the start of the spring semester and played his last game on Jan. 17. This time, he at least has a chance to come back, but his absence will make it harder for the Gophers (15-4, 4-3 Big Ten) to finish strong in the conference and grab a high seed in the NCAA tournament.
They can't rely anymore on Devoe Joseph, who decided to transfer earlier this month. As a sophomore last season, Joseph stepped in for Nolen as the starting point guard and contributed several clutch performances down the stretch to help the Gophers rally and reach the Big Ten tournament championship game.
This year, freshmen Maverick Ahanmisi and Chip Armelin will have to fill in, a tough task for first-timers. Though they've shown potential, neither is averaging more than 10 minutes or four points per game. Ahanmisi is the only true point guard remaining on the roster.
"We know that we've got a tough challenge ahead of us," Smith said.
The Gophers host Northwestern Wednesday, the day Nolen will have an operation to place a pin in his foot. He missed five games earlier this season while recovering from what was described by the team as a stress reaction, the precursor to a stress fracture.
Nolen decided then not to have the procedure, preferring to let the foot heal on its own and wear orthotics in his shoes for added comfort. But Nolen landed awkwardly on his foot while playing defense Saturday at Michigan, limping to the bench after playing only 11 minutes in the first half. Smith said after the game Nolen sprained his ankle, but the final diagnosis was a broken bone.
On the conference call, Smith sounded frustrated that Nolen didn't have the surgery the first time.
"It cost us. It cost him," Smith said.
Later, in a statement distributed by the university, Smith expressed optimism that Nolen would be back.
"We knew that Al was playing with a lot of pain since the previous injury occurred so we are hoping that the procedure will relieve the pain and make it possible for him to return to the lineup by the end of the season," the coach said. "In the meantime, we know that Al will continue to be a leader from the bench."
While his shooting and scoring success over his career has been sporadic, Nolen has been one of Minnesota's steadiest players while being a disruptive defensive force on the perimeter for a team that has struggled to hold opponents in check from 3-point range. Over the four games prior to his latest injury, Nolen was averaging nearly 13 points per game including a clutch 3-pointer that helped the Gophers hold on to beat Purdue, then ranked eighth in the nation.
The Minneapolis native, who starred at Henry High School, is averaging career highs this season with 8.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 29.1 minutes per game. He's also averaging 3.7 assists and 2.4 steals per game.