Gophers Working to Overcome Loss of Mbawke

Minnesota coach Tubby Smith can't be disappointed with his team's play through the first half of the Big Ten Conference season. After losing Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Trevor Mbawke early in the year, the Gophers remained in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid after a 4-5 start in Big Ten play.

Smith pointed to poise as an identifying trait for his team through the first stage of the conference season. The Gophers had trouble adapting to playing close games without Mbawke in their first three conference games, losing to Illinois, Michigan and Iowa by a total of 16 points, which included a nine-point, double-overtime loss at Illinois.

But they have learned from those tough early losses in late December and early January, with several underclassmen stepping up and taking advantage of added playing time. Minnesota showed that improvement by winning at Indiana and Penn State and avenging its loss to Illinois with a spirited 77-72 overtime victory at home on Jan. 28.

"I'd like for that to be our M.O. -- that these guys are never out of it," Smith said before the Iowa contest on Feb. 1. "(They're) just understanding the journey and appreciating each moment they have to get better."

The Gophers, though, couldn't contain that solid play in close games after falling to 16-7 and 4-6 in the Big Ten with a 63-59 loss at Iowa on Feb. 1. The Gophers lost despite making 10-of-19 three-pointers and getting 13 points from Ralph Sampson III. Smith wasn't sure that backup center Elliott Eliason would play against the Hawkeyes due to an ankle injury sustained in Monday's practice, but Eliason contributed six rebounds in 18 minutes coming off the bench.

Minnesota returns to the court to play at Nebraska on Feb. 5. The Huskers, in their first season playing in the Big Ten, no doubt will look to establish a rivalry with the Gophers. Nebraska senior guard Bo Spencer was making a name for himself, lighting up conference teams by averaging a team-leading 14.9 points. The Gophers must watch out for the dreaded trap game, with Nebraska claiming wins over Penn State and Indiana at the Devaney Center. The Gophers have to beat Nebraska in order to stay within striking distance of finishing with at least a .500 record in conference play to enhance their NCAA Tournament chances. The Gophers enter a difficult stretch of games following the Nebraska contest.

After the Nebraska game, the Gophers have the luxury of playing four of their next five games at home, including back-to-back games against highly ranked Wisconsin and Ohio State. The Gophers then play at Northwestern on Feb. 18 before hosting Michigan State and Indiana.

NOTES, QUOTES

Hollins working on improving consistency

--Sophomore G Austin Hollins understands big-time pressure. As the son of Memphis Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins, he has been around professional basketball for most of his life. Hollins has become an instrumental player for the Gophers in his second season. But Hollins is working on playing consistent basketball on a regular basis. However, the 6-foot-4, 185-pounder is slowly starting to put together regular big games. Hollins, who ranked second on the team with 22 starts in 23 games this year, scored in double figures for the 11th time this season following an 11-point effort in a loss at Iowa on Feb. 1. Hollins hit three treys against the Hawkeyes to score in double figures for the fifth time in the last six games. Hollins made three three-pointers in a game for the second time this season.

--Junior G Julian Welch might own a wealth of experience, but he's still considered a newcomer on the Gophers. In his first season at Minnesota, the 6-foot-3 Welch was the leading scorer among the new players on the roster, averaging 10.1 points, through Wednesday. Sporting jersey number double zero, Welch has the talent to affect a game in many ways with his shooting, passing and rebounding. Welch showed that all-around ability with 12 points, six assists, five rebounds and a trio of three-pointers in Minnesota's 63-59 defeat at Iowa on Feb. 1. Welch has 16 assists in his last four contests, while compiling 16 rebounds during that stretch.

BY THE NUMBERS: 15-for-18 -- Minnesota from the foul line down the stretch against Illinois, after starting the game 6-for-15.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The play originally was for him to take the three but he saw something different and that's a part of the game of basketball." -- Coach Tubby Smith on G Austin Hollins driving for a game-tying 3-point play instead of pulling up for the 3-point shot against Illinois.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAME:

--at Nebraska, Feb. 5

KEY MATCHUPS: There are tough road trips in league play and then there are trips that aren't quite as tough. This one was expected to be filed under the latter category, though the Gophers lost at Iowa.

It's not that Nebraska is a bad basketball team. The Huskers were not under .500 overall, but did start off the season 11-9. They were also under .500 in the conference after a 3-6 start.

Minnesota's four road games in the conference to date were at previously ranked Illinois, No. 18 Michigan, No. 8 Indiana and No. 11 Michigan State. The Gophers won at Indiana, so you would have think they could win at Nebraska, despite the Iowa loss.

Last week, Iowa and Nebraska played each other and Nebraska charged from behind for the road win.

TRENDING: The Gophers were playing solid defense at home in Williams Arena this year. Minnesota must rely on that defense with upcoming games against Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana at Williams Arena. Minnesota is allowing 57.6 points per game at Williams Arena, known as "The Barn."

FUTURES MARKET: Sophomore G Chip Armelin tied his career-high with 14 points and also pulled down a career-best seven rebounds in 24 minutes in the overtime win over Illinois. He was also 3-for-6 from 3-point range.

"What can I say about him? He was probably player of the game," coach Tubby Smith said. "He's one of our worst 3-point shooters, but now since we've been playing in the Big Ten he's been one of our better 3-point shooters, and he's got a lot of confidence."

The 3-for-6 left Armelin 14-for-44 from 3-point range for the season.

PLAYER NOTES

--Junior F Rodney Williams scored 15 of Minnesota's 52 points in the loss at No. 11 Michigan State, going 6-for-10 from the floor and 3-for-5 from 3-point range. Williams than had just six points and two rebounds in the win over Illinois.

--Sophomore G Austin Hollins scored 14 points against Illinois, including his team's last six points in regulation. He forced overtime with a drive (a more-than questionable decision) to the basket for a 3-point play with four seconds left to force OT.

--Freshman G Andre Hollins scored five of his team's first seven points in overtime and finished with 12 points, three assists and three steals.

--Freshman G Joe Coleman had nine points, eight rebounds and three steals in the win against Illinois.


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