After opening the Big Ten season with a pair of road losses, the Gophers weren't in the mood to talk about their problems.
They'd managed to stay close to at Wisconsin and Michigan State but they couldn't overcome their lengthy scoring droughts and poor perimeter defense, ongoing problems.
But those kinks seem fixable. The good news for Tubby Smith's best Gophers team is that there's nothing broken about their inside power.
In two conference games, the Gophers outscored the Spartans and Badgers 70-30 in the paint. Before Trevor Mbakwe, who's recorded eight double-doubles this season, picked up two quick fouls in the second half against the Spartans, the Gophers had their way inside.
About 20 times every game, you'll hear Smith scream, "High low! High low!" It's an edict for his players, who know the fourth-year coach demands an offense that emphasizes balance. But in Smith's first three seasons, he didn't have a true power forward.
Mbakwe has given Smith the kind of post threat that will often draw double teams in the team's upcoming games. He's averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds in the squad's first two Big Ten games.
Foul trouble, however, remains a concern for the junior forward who drew eight over the last two games. With freshman center Mo walker sidelined for the rest of the season with a knee injury, the Gophers need Mbakwe to produce and stay away from those hazards.
"I just have to be smart. I'm hurting the team by being in foul trouble these last couple games," he said. "Some fouls I can't control. You get some, you don't get some. But I just have to keep getting smarter because my team needs me on the court."
--The Gophers looked like a different squad on defense when Al Nolen missed five games due to a foot injury. Before that time, Nolen led the Big Ten in steals with 2.8 per game. For everything the Gophers have gained of defense since he returned in time for the squad's last nonconference game, they've taken a hit offensively because of Nolen's struggles. The senior point guard was 1 for 10 in the first two Big Ten games. If his problems persist, Devoe Joseph, who made the all-Big Ten tournament team last season after Nolen missed a chunk of the season due to academic issues, will probably replace him in the starting rotation.
--Before the season began, NBA minds labeled sophomore wing Rodney Williams as a possible lottery pick. His YouTube clips prove that he has the athleticism to play at the next level -- check out the 360 from just inside the free throw line. But the second-year man hasn't found a rhythm on either side of the floor. Tubby Smith said he wants Williams to be his best overall defender and a contributor on offense. But he had seven steals and eight blocks through Jan. 2, not sufficient for top three on the team in either category. And offensively, he was 2-for-18 from the three-point line.
--Every season, Tubby Smith's name is mentioned when top jobs become vacant. But the fourth-year coach says he likes Minnesota and feels the program is headed in the right direction.
That didn't stop various reports from linking Smith to the Charlotte Bobcats vacancy recently. Team owner Michael Jordan and Smith are good friends. And although discussions started early last year, Smith has not signed an extension with the Gophers. Plus, the practice facility he's craved from Day 1 is still an idea without the funding to make it a reality. It also didn't help that Smith's desire to hire Jimmy Williams as an assistant in 2007 and athletic Joel Maturi's refusal resulted in a highly publicized court trial over the summer. Williams won a $1 million judgment against the university. With all of the extra static, Gophers supporters will probably endure another offseason of "What if?" when it comes to Smith's future.
BY THE NUMBERS: 63.4 -- The Gophers' shooting percentage from the free throw line this season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I know our team is more relaxed and I think they're playing that way. It's good to have guys doing what they're supposed to do and not have all the distractions." -- Tubby Smith on being more relaxed this year. Last year, he endured a variety of off-court trouble within his program.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Indiana, Jan. 4
KEY MATCHUPS: Indiana has lost four in a row, but the Gophers know better than to treat the Hoosiers as anything but a wounded animal. The Gophers lost on the road to the Hoosiers last season during a 1-4 stretch. They're seeking revenge this time around.
--at Ohio State, Jan. 9
KEY MATCHUPS: The Gophers haven't won at Ohio State under Tubby Smith. And it's hard to imagine that anything will change this time. Jared Sullinger has gone from freshman to watch to National Player of the Year candidate. But Sullinger vs. Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe is one of the most highly anticipated matchups in Big Ten play.
FUTURES MARKET: When Tubby Smith scored Memphis prep star Andre Hollins, he believed he'd found a gem. Hollins wasn't on many Top 100 lists, after playing on a very talented White Station squad. As the No. 1 guy on this season's team, however, he's sparkled and exploded onto the national scene. Hollins scored 46 points against Findlay Prep, the No. 1 team in America. Findlay Prep coach Michael Peck said Hollins is one of the best players in the country. "He is one of the best four players this program has ever faced, and I'd compare him to one of our best in Avery Bradley, who's now with the Boston Celtics," Peck told reporters. "Hollins moved, hesitated, got himself open for his shot -- and from 8-15 feet, he was money all night. If he's not considered Top 10 nationally now, he will be."
--Freshman C Mo Walker was officially diagnosed with a torn meniscus and PCL, an injury he suffered in the team's final nonconference game, last week. Walker, a Canadian prep who'd become a key part of the rotation, will have surgery in the coming weeks and will not play for the rest of the season.
--Junior F Trevor Mbakwe had eight double-doubles entering the week, one of the top marks in the nation thus far. In two other games, he was a rebound away from a double-double. His 10.0 rebounds per game in the first two weeks of the season put him atop the league's rebounding charts.
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