Minnesota has played well defensively since suffering its first loss. Getting Al Nolen back will only make it better at stopping opponents.
The 17th-ranked Golden Gophers expect Nolen to return to the lineup when they host South Dakota State for the sixth consecutive season Thursday night.
Minnesota opened with six straight wins before allowing a season high in points in an 87-79 home loss to Virginia on Nov. 29. That was its first game without Nolen, who has a stress fracture in his foot which actually occurred last season but went undiagnosed.
The senior point guard, who sat out during the second semester last season when he was suspended by coach Tubby Smith for not keeping up with his classwork, is the Gophers’ best defender.
“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.”
Minnesota has stepped up on the defensive end since facing Virginia, winning four in a row while holding opponents to 63.8 points and 35.5 percent shooting.
The Gophers (10-1) held Akron to an opponent season-low 34.9 percent shooting in a 66-58 win Dec. 15. Minnesota, though, shot 41.7 percent and went 12 for 22 from the free-throw line for the second straight game.
“Once we get Al Nolen back that will help our ball handling. We have to make shots to get into our press,” Smith said. “When we take bad shots and have to hustle back on defense and are not ready to go, that’s when we are the most vulnerable.
“We have some time off here, so we can work on what individuals need to work on, like our free-throw shooting.”
Senior guard Blake Hoffarber scored 13 points against the Zips to go over 1,000 for his career. He leads Minnesota with 14.8 points and 4.9 assists per game.
Forward Trevor Mbakwe added 13 points and 13 rebounds, and he said the Gophers need to start stronger after trailing Akron 32-27 at halftime and leading Eastern Kentucky by three before posting a 71-58 win Dec. 11.
“We have to get better, to be honest with you,” Mbakwe said. “We have to play with better energy and come out and play the way we are capable of. We’ve gotten lucky so far to bounce back and I think that’s going to help us in the future, but we still need to get better.”
Minnesota had no trouble starting fast last December against South Dakota State, jumping out to a 51-31 lead at the half en route to a 92-62 win.
The Gophers have won the last five meetings by an average of 18.6 points, and they’re 12-0 in the series.
South Dakota State (8-3) avoided a third straight loss Monday as Nate Wolters sank a 3-pointer at the buzzer in a 72-69 win at Central Michigan. Wolters finished with a game-high 25 points and six assists.
The Jackrabbits are 0-4 against Top 25 teams since joining Division I for the 2004-05 season.