Damian Johnson: Fly
When the undefeated Gopher men's basketball team meets 9th ranked Louisville in tomorrow's "Stadium Shootout" at the University of Phoenix Stadium, the Maroon & Gold boys best hope that the Vikings left some good vibes behind after their Week 15 trouncing of the Cardinals.
While Tubby Smith's Gopher hoops club is just one of 13 remaining unblemished teams in D-1 basketball (9-0), it's sobering to note that Tubby's former mentor, present Louisville skip Rick Pitino, will offer far more resistance than Minnesota's previous eight D-1 opponents. Collectively, those teams sport a record of 34-39 (.466). Louisville, led by freshman forward Samardo Samuels' 16 ppg., also has two other players averaging double-digit points, and is looking tight at 7-1.
But the Gophers sport some true talent of their own, foremost, in my mind, junior forward Damian Johnson, who missed three games earlier this season with a hand injury but has been stellar since his 11/22 return. Johnson, at 11 ppg., won't fill up the stat sheet as a pure scorer; rather he spreads out his numbers in a fashion mirroring an impressive wing-span that makes him one of the country's premier shot blockers. At present, with 3.0 blocks per game, Johnson is tied for 10th in the nation in said category, having recorded multiple blocks in every game. The highlight swats are meshed with an active floor-game, as evidenced by his 3.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per contest.
For my dollars, I believe Damian Johnson is the sleeper conference stud in what should be a somewhat quiet year for the Big Ten nationally. Not overburdened with the overt responsibility to score (he'll leave that, namely, to guards Blake Hoffarber, Lawrence Westbrook, and Al Nolen), Johnson will have the ability to roam the court at his near-freakish will -- creating opportunities for others, playing tough-Tubby defense, engaging in the aforementioned shot-blocking, and picking up hustle rebounds and put-backs. He may be the most impactfull Gopher since Kris Humphries (21 ppg./ 10 rpg.) back in 2003-'04.
Johnson's Gopher career thus far may be lacking in headlines, but not in result. For games in which he records double-digit steals, the Gophers win at a pedestrian 52 percent clip. Double-digit blocks: a solid 70 percent. Double-digit points? A wholly impressive 82 percent.
This guy will make noise this season, and I'm not just talking Barn clamor. I'm thinking nationally. So when the USA Today's and such come a' running, dude will undoubtedly need a nickname.
Johnson hails from Thibodaux, Louisiana but unfortunately for him, "Louisiana Lightening" was already taken by Ron Guidry. "Bayou Blocker" . . . nah, kind of cheeseball. "The Omen?" Hhhm . . .
I'm going with "Fly." It's short, direct, kind of old school and employs brevity to speak toward the guy's crazy and leviathan leaping/swatting talents. Plus, should his Gophers upset Pitino & Louisville on Saturday afternoon, the moniker will undoubtedly reflect Minnesota's rapid ascent into the nation's top-20.