An illustrious career, to be continued

In his past, Blake Hoffarber has an ESPY and gobs of 3s; in his future, he hopes there is professional basketball.
By
  • Anthony Kwan, Daily File Photo
March 09, 2011

He’s not fast enough. He’s not strong enough. He’s nothing but a shooter. He won’t make it at a big-time Division I basketball program.

The critics have yet to stop Blake Hoffarber.

“I think I’ve done a good job,” the Gophers’ senior co-captain said. “But I’m not content with good.

“I’ve still got a lot of improvement to prove those other people wrong, but I’m working on it.”

That drive gave those close to Hoffarber confidence that the 6-foot-4 guard would be successful with the Gophers, even before he made it to college.

“Before he got here I told people he would be the best shooter to leave here,” said senior co-captain Al Nolen, who played with Hoffarber in AAU growing up.

His prediction came true.

Regardless of how Minnesota finishes in the Big Ten tournament, which begins Thursday in Indianapolis, Hoffarber’s quick left-handed release resulted in 276 made 3-pointers, the most in team history by 85.

He also holds the record for most games played (131), many of which he played hurt. He had surgery after his junior season to repair a bilateral sports hernia. Ken Novak, Jr., his uncle and coach at Hopkins High School, said he’s had a torn bursa sac in one of his elbows and — as recently as this season — one of his knees. Novak added “several high ankle sprains” and consistent plantar fasciitis to the mix.

“He’s having trouble walking,” Novak said. “He’s a tough kid.”

Hoffarber is 18th all-time in scoring at Minnesota with the possibility of moving up a few spots if the Gophers make a run in the conference tournament, NIT or NCAA tournament.

Followers of Minnesota might remember Hoffarber for a disappointing end to a hopeful senior season. Others could recall his two seemingly mythical shots, one of which won him an ESPY, the other an ESPY nomination.

His teammates and coaches will remember the work he put in to silence the doubters.

“He’s just worked hard to prove everybody wrong,” junior Trevor Mbakwe said. “He never settled.”

Constant adjustments

At the start of Hoffarber’s sophomore season, the NCAA moved the 3-point line back a foot. He shot a career-low 34.1 percent from beyond the arc that year.

With another offseason to adjust, Hoffarber came back his junior season hitting treys at a 46.7 percent clip, best in the Big Ten.

Since that difficult sophomore year, Hoffarber has steadily increased his averages in points and assists.

But his senior season has put the most strain on the finance major, who will graduate this May and already has a job offer from Cargill — assuming he finishes his final seven credits this semester.

Despite how he plays it off, the pressure of losing the team’s starting point guard — Nolen broke his foot on Jan. 22 — has gotten to Hoffarber. A shooting guard by nature, Hoffarber took over point guard duties, and although he played point guard during a Class 4A state championship as a high school sophomore, the change was drastic.

“I know it’s taking a toll on him trying to play out of position,” Nolen said. “People don’t understand that even if he wanted to go back and just be a shooter it’s affecting him already.”

The Gophers are 2-9 without Nolen and lost nine of their last 10 games to finish the regular season, including the last two games with freshman Maverick Ahanmisi starting at point guard. During the last 11 games, Hoffarber is shooting just 37.5 percent compared with 44.2 percent for his career.

To cope with the games lost and the losses of players to injury (Nolen and Mo Walker) and transfer (Devoe Joseph), Hoffarber doesn’t punch a wall or pillow — nor does he weep.

“I do a lot of thinking, especially when I go to bed at night,” he said. “You always wish you could’ve had a full squad. You wish everything had gone right, but I think everyone in the world would wish everything would go right. It’s how you pick yourself up when things don’t go down.”

Adjusting to losing

Despite scoring 31 points, Hoffarber lost his final high school basketball game. Hopkins failed to make the state tournament and couldn’t defend its back-to-back titles.

“I think that was tougher,” Novak said. “We hadn’t lost too much.”

The Royals won state championships during Hoffarber’s sophomore and junior seasons. He missed the end of his freshman season due to mononucleosis.

Like high school, this isn’t how Hoffarber wanted to end his career with the Gophers.

“He’s always won. Times had gone well,” Novak said, adding that when such streaks happen, “winning doesn’t mean quite as much. Losing just gets harder.”

Gophers coach Tubby Smith isn’t accustomed to losing either. His teams have won 20 games in each of the past 17 seasons, dating back to his years at Tulsa. Smith and Hoffarber’s frustration became apparent during a timeout against Northwestern last week, with the two clearly yelling at each other.

After Minnesota gave up a double-digit lead and lost to the Wildcats, Hoffarber said, “I don’t think I’ve ever gone through a losing streak like this.”

He hasn’t.

“And I don’t think coach has either.”

He hasn’t.

“Anytime you’re losing like this I think people are just trying to fire other people up, and your emotions come out,” Hoffarber said.

Smith has questioned the senior’s shot selection multiple times in postgame interviews. Hoffarber said he doesn’t listen to the media, but classmates mention it to him.

He just tries his best to respond on the court.

“It lights a fire under my belt,” he said. “I think he’s just doing it to just get us motivated. Obviously we haven’t been playing too well, and you’ve got to try to do different things.”

The best moments

People still come up to Hoffarber and ask him about the shot.

Remember? The one he swished from his backside as a sophomore in high school that sent a state tournament game to double-overtime and helped Hopkins win the title.

“It seems like every day someone will come up or bring it up,” he said before this season. “People always think it’s a fun thing to talk about.”

His current head coach doesn’t mind talking about another shot, the one that earned him a second ESPY nomination — although not a win like with the butt shot — in the 2008 Big Ten tournament.

Hoffarber took a near-70-foot long in-bounds pass from Travis Busch in a second-round game. The Gophers trailed by 1 with 1.5 seconds left.

Catch, turn and shoot.

“That’s as good of a winning shot as I’ve ever had a player make, to be honest with you,” Smith said of Hoffarber’s game-winner. “I’ve had guys make winning shots, but in that type of environment, in that circumstance, him being a freshman; it was just amazing.

“You just don’t find that, but he’s got that ultimate confidence.”

Despite the fame and glory of that shot, Hoffarber’s favorite moment at Minnesota was making the NCAA tournament as a sophomore. He wanted to experience the hype and energy of March Madness.

And although the Gophers ended up losing in the first round in 2009 and 2010, he was confident when he filled out the brackets — without betting, of course.

“Just seeing our name in that bracket and being able to move us throughout the whole tournament, it’s fun,” he said. “If you’re filling it out and you have yourself lose, there’s something wrong with that.”

What’s next

After he graduates, Hoffarber wants to play basketball. He doesn’t know where or for how long, but of that he is certain.

“Whether it’s two years or 10 years,” he said, “I just want to see how far it can take me.”

Most of his teammates and coaches see a pro career at some level as a certain possibility.

“I can’t imagine anybody not wanting to play with him,” Novak said. “I think he wants to make other people better.”

Therein lies his second career. Maybe.

After testing the pros, Hoffarber plans to put that business degree to use, although he’s not rejecting the possibility of coaching.

His grandfather, Ken Novak, Sr., coached basketball for more than 50 years, and his uncle isn’t too shabby either. Hoffarber admitted that he could be looking toward business now because of the focus he’s been giving to classes.

“I’ve never been away from basketball,” he said. “It might be tough hanging it up.”

Hoffarber said he never looked back on his decision to join the Gophers, even though he knew exactly where his second choice of Notre Dame was ranked last week. The Irish are now No. 4 in the nation.

And as he looks toward the final chapter of his career at Minnesota, he doesn’t want people to remember him for his latest run of losing, one that he’s hoping to turn around starting Thursday.

“I just want them to think of me as a winner and doing everything I can to help the team win,” he said. “I just want them to remember that I’m always a positive kid, a good leader and just a winner.”

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