The Gophers enter the Big Ten season with essentially the same roster they had last season, but Tubby Smith's arrival gives them an automatic boost and a chance to win the close games they lost last year.
Smith has placed a great emphasis on conditioning, a necessity for a team that frequently runs a full-court press on defense and rotates just 10 players due to injuries. And his on-the-court tutelage has turned a nine-win team from last season into a squad that will give Big Ten foes a fight if they execute the way they have thus far.
Through eight games, the team had won seven of them by applying constant defensive pressure and operating a platoon system, where Smith swaps out his starters for five fiery reserves within the first five minutes of the game. But the team fared poorly against one of the few potential NCAA tournament teams on their nonconference schedule in a road loss at Florida State Nov. 27. They have held teams to a 40 percent field goal percentage during that stretch.
Going forward, their greatest weapon against Big Ten opponents will be tenacious defense. They will likely struggle, however, against teams with strong post players, as the Gophers lack depth in the lane with only three true post players. Both fans and university officials like Smith's work thus far. Smith recently signed a seven-year, $13 million contract, which puts him on par with some of the highest-paid coaches in the league.
KEY EARLY SEASON CONFERENCE GAME: at Michigan State, Jan. 5 — The Gophers could go into their Big Ten opener sporting one loss, but they failed against teams on the road last season, winning only one game away from Minneapolis. A strong showing against Michigan State, even if they lose, should set the team's tone on the road for the rest of the year.
LAST YEAR'S CONFERENCE RECORD: (3-13, ninth in the Big Ten)
Freshman shooting guard Blake Hoffarber earned 15 minutes of fame when he won an ESPY in 2005, after he hit a shot while sitting down to help his high school team win a state championship. Now, he is quickly earning more acclaim as one of Minnesota's best perimeter shooters (46.8 percent from the 3-point line through eight games) and a talented passer and ball handler (3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio).
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters: G Lawrence McKenzie, G Lawrence Westbrook, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, F Dan Coleman, C Spencer Tollackson. Key Subs — G Blake Hoffarber, F Damian Johnson.
Minnesota 88, North Dakota State 56
Minnesota 91, Colorado State 74
Minnesota 78, South Dakota State 72
Vs. Santa Clara, Saturday, Dec. 22
Vs. Nicholls State, Friday, Dec. 28
Vs. Kennesaw State, Saturday, Dec. 29
IN FOCUS: Santa Clara will give the Gophers a stiff test. They're led by 6-10, 305-pound sophomore center John Bryant, who only plays 25 minutes per game, but scores 20 points per contest. Santa Clara has managed to hold teams to a 41.9 field-goal percentage from the field, while making 51.9 percent of their own field goal attempts. Minnesota faces a tough test against a team that has also had some success from beyond the arc. And Bryant could exploit the Gophers' lack of depth in the post. Minnesota senior forward Dan Coleman and senior Spencer Tollackson will have to stay out of foul trouble.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We can be better. We've taken some tough shots early on in the season and I feel like guys are still learning our offensive scheme and where their shots are going to come from." — Coach Tubby Smith.