Golden Gophers try to avoid legal distractions

November, 25, 2009
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Minnesota assistant coaches were making their way toward a late-night team meal Tuesday night at the Hilton, feeling pretty swell about the start of the Gophers' season.

But boy would they feel even better, to the point where they could compete with any team in the country, if newcomer forwards Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe were playing.

But they know the deal and no one is questioning the authority of coach Tubby Smith. The players in question, as well as senior wing Devron Bostick, aren't here for the 76 Classic because their head coach doesn't mess around. All three are suspended.

If there is one thing that you can say for certain about Smith during his tenures at Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky and now at Minnesota, the man doesn't waste time with trouble. He has not been immune to off-court player issues -- no one is at this level. But Smith has tried to maintain the highest ethical standards, and he won't stop now.

White, who was Minnesota's Mr. Basketball last season, is in the midst of a legal mess related to theft and assault charges. The misdemeanor charge of theft and fifth-degree assault occurred after he allegedly shoplifted pants and a shirt valued at $100 from Macy's at the Mall of America and allegedly shoved and kicked a security guard. White was arrested on Oct. 13 and his trial is Dec. 2. Campus police say he is also a suspect in a laptop theft from a dorm room on Nov. 7.

Mbakwe was charged with felony aggravated battery after allegedly punching a woman in the face in Miami. Bostick was suspended by the school for a violation of team rules.

Smith said Bostick should be back for next week's Big Ten/ACC Challenge game at Miami on Dec. 2. Bostick did what he was supposed to do and is scheduled to be cleared by UM athletic director Joel Maturi.

Smith said Mbakwe could be back with the team any day because they anticipate his case could be dropped.

White is a different matter.

"He's dealing with some things emotionally and mentally,'' Smith said. "But shoplifting, you can't get around that one. Royce is going through a legal situation with shoplifting. I'll make a decision if he's going to be a part of this program or not.''

While there was a sense of how much better the 16th-ranked Gophers could be with White and Mbakwe playing next to the solid lineup of point guard Al Nolen, shooting guard Lawrence Westbrook and the frontcourt of Ralph Sampson III, Damian Johnson and Colton Iverson, there are no what-ifs coming from Smith.

"Not when you don't have something you never had,'' Smith said. "They haven't played a game for me, so I don't miss them. I move on like anything else. They could have been helpful, but they were going to have to earn their stripes like everyone else. I've never locked in a recruited player, not Rajon Rondo, Randolph Morris or Tayshaun Prince [all at Kentucky]. And neither one of these guys is a lottery pick.''

Smith said his players are well aware of his standards.

"It was just unfortunate that we had three kids to suspend at one time,'' Smith said. "They need to learn a lesson right away.''

So far the team's competition has been weak, with three wins over Tennessee Tech, Stephen F. Austin and Utah Valley. But you can't dismiss the numbers the Gophers are compiling, allowing just 58.7 points a game while Westbrook averages 18.5 ppg, freshman Rodney Williams 15 and Johnson 11.7. Sampson III has been a model of consistency with eight boards and eight points a game, and Nolen has 21 assists and just two turnovers through three games at the point.

The Gophers have a deep bench for the first time in Smith's three seasons in Minneapolis, something that would have been even stronger and still may be if the final three scholarship players are cleared to participate.

"We've got much more experience coming into the game on that second unit,'' Smith said. "Maybe it's a good thing those guys aren't here because it has allowed these other guys to develop. We've only got 10 players now.''

The Gophers were one of the nation's surprise teams last season, beating Louisville early in the season and then finishing 9-9 in the Big Ten and winning 22 games to earn an NCAA tournament berth.

Unlike last season, though, the expectations are high this season. How good this squad will be, even without White and Mbakwe for now, could be a bit clearer this week after the Gophers play No. 10 Butler on Thursday at the Anaheim Convention Center in the first round of the 76 Classic.

"It'll be interesting to see how we play against a very good Butler team,'' Smith said. "Nothing against Utah Valley or Tennessee Tech, but it isn't the same. This will be a good indication of how poised we are and whether we can handle this.

"I know we have a lot of confidence,'' Smith said. "I hope they [his players] think we're supposed to be good. They better think we're supposed to be good or we're in a heap of trouble. We're coming in here as the underdog with teams [Butler and West Virginia] ranked above us, and that in itself should inspire and motivate us. I know it does me.''

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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