MINNEAPOLIS -- Al Nolen's solid performance helped Minnesota (No. 20 ESPN/USA Today, No. 21 AP) win the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament last month and surge into the national rankings.
Playing three games in four days, however, did some damage to the senior point guard's foot.
Nolen appeared in one more game the following week before telling the team's medical staff of the problem and finding out from X-rays and an MRI that he had a stress fracture.
Nolen has missed the last four games for with the Gophers (9-1), but now he's nearing a return. Gophers coach Tubby Smith wouldn't rule out Nolen from playing in Wednesday's game against Akron, but Nolen said Tuesday that he wouldn't be ready in time to play the Zips.
Instead, he said his goal is to be back for Minnesota's Big Ten opener at rival Wisconsin on Dec. 28 or even sooner for the final nonconference game against South Dakota State on Dec. 23.
"I'm feeling good. They've got a couple of orthotics in my shoes to help take the pressure off in that one area," Nolen said. "I'm just trying to get my wind back out here and be ready to play."
The stress fracture actually occurred last season, but it went undiagnosed.
Nolen said he thought the discomfort was due to his shoes, so he didn't give it much concern. But after the tournament in Puerto Rico, when he had 17 points, four assists and two steals to lead the Gophers to victory over West Virginia in the title game on Nov. 21, Nolen started to feel more pain.
He played 28 minutes against North Dakota State three days later, but that was all he could stand.
"It was starting to flare back up, and if I didn't try to take care of it or rest it it'd probably end up breaking," Nolen said.
Watching the Gophers lose at home to Virginia was difficult for Nolen, just as sitting out was during the second semester last season when he was suspended by Smith for not keeping up with his classwork. The Gophers struggled without his defensive ability and steadiness running the offense last season, and he's been missed again this month during the nonconference portion of the schedule.
Smith said he's found himself more at ease this year.
"Absolutely. Who wouldn't be? I know our team is more relaxed. I think they're playing that way," Smith said. "It's good. Guys know what they're supposed to do, and we don't have all the distractions."