Reserves Help Increase Intensity

The Gophers have a newfound respect for the depth that their bench can bring to a game.

In the Gophers' Dec. 3 game against North Dakota State, the Bison kept things close early, trailing just 18-17 with 10 minutes remaining in the first half. But then Minnesota made the switch that has confused and worn down five out of its first six opponents.

Starters Dan Coleman, Spencer Tollackson, Lawrence McKenzie, Lawrence Westbrook and Jamal Abu-Shamala are usually spelled within the first five minutes of a game by Damian Johnson, Jon Williams, Blake Hoffarber, Kevin Payton and Al Nolen. That second unit has helped the Gophers break open close games this season by applying the aggressive and energetic defensive effort that sets this team apart from last season's squad.

The reserves helped the Gophers make a 27-9 run and finish up the half with a 44-27 lead. In the first half alone, they held the Bison to just 33.3 field goal percentage and only 27 points after they entered the game averaging 87.6 points. Minnesota went on to cruise to an 88-56 victory.

The Gophers will continue to play this way throughout the season. Smith uses a 10-man rotation to give players time to rest and to insert well-rested reserves who often compete against opponents' starters who seem unprepared for the switch or the full-court press they put on right away.


  • In every Gophers practice, you can hear Tubby Smith voraciously making demands on a team that finished 9-22 last season. The rules changed from day one with Smith, whose disciplined practices have translated to more restraint on the court.

  • If players are caught walking or even yawning, they have to run. Players like senior C Spencer Tollackson, who is averaging 10.5 points per game, has picked up a new low-carb diet, which helps him keep up with Smith's rigorous conditioning drills. He's lost more than 20 pounds over the last four months.

  • During the team's Midnight Madness event in October, fans were excited to see standout G Lawrence McKenzie commence his senior year. But the freshman guarding him that night in an intra-squad scrimmage tried to steal the show. Al Nolen — initially the team's third point guard — quickly announced his arrival with a 24-point performance in a Nov. 6 exhibition game against Southwest Minnesota State. He's destined to break into the starting rotation soon, after averaging 5.3 points, 3.83 assists and picking up 17 steals through six games.

    LOOKING AHEAD: Since the first day of practice, the Gophers have acknowledged that they'll have to build up momentum going into the Big Ten season. If they can get past Colorado State Dec. 8 and South Dakota State Dec. 12, they'll have seven wins, just two shy of their win total for all of last season. These games are important because the Gophers got off to a 2-5 start last season and couldn't recover. But if they can match their win total by the end of the calendar year, they'll have a solid record — and confidence — at the start of their Big Ten schedule.

    ROSTER REPORT: Sophomore F Damian Johnson is Minnesota's spark plug off the bench. He led the team in blocks through their first six games and has natural shot-blocking ability.

    G Travis Busch has been hampered by a left leg injury, after showing promise in the team's exhibition games. Down the road, a healthy Busch may enhance the team's bench even more. And G Lawrence McKenzie has recovered from a groin injury he suffered prior to the team's season opener against Army Nov. 10.

    PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — C Spencer Tollackson, F Dan Coleman, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, G Lawrence Westbrook and G Lawrence McKenzie. Key Subs — G Al Nolen, F Damian Johnson and C Jon Williams.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think every day this team comes closer and closer together. Obviously, Coach Smith and his staff had a big part of that, installing confidence and teamwork and unity in our squad this year." — C Spencer Tollackson.

  • Gopher Illustrated Top Stories