Gophers Getting Tough Under Smith

Tubby Smith is known for his tough practices and has been instilling some of that mentality with his current Gophers team.

After a sloppy Dec. 30 81-64 road loss at UNLV, a game in which the Gophers played weak perimeter defense and contested few shots in the post, Tubby Smith decided his team needed to toughen up.

Smith's "toughness drills" have been an infamous part of his success. While he was an assistant at South Carolina, former coach George Felton nearly grabbed Smith who decided to discipline players after a tough loss by forcing them to squat in a defensive stance ... for 15-plus minutes.

When he was the head coach at Georgia, practices for the Bulldogs post players were more like football drills. Before one Bulldogs game, Smith brought out tackling dummies and used them to knock around his big men, a drill that almost caused fisticuffs.

Minnesota has already witnessed some of Smith's methods to their benefit. The black eyes, cut lips and chipped teeth they've experienced this season are just a part of practicing hard to play that way.

When senior forward Dan Coleman's was asked about the team's practice session after a tough loss, he smiled and replied: "C'mon man, you already know."

In preparation for the team's Big Ten opener against Michigan State Jan. 5, Smith gave the Gophers a few lessons on taking charges. The drills were very physical and tiring, but they made the team even hungrier. Just ask the Spartans, who barely held on to beat the Gophers 65-59 at Michigan State in front a sellout crowd. The Gophers drew numerous offensive fouls.

Expect the Gophers to play with more of an edge in Big Ten play compared to the way they shrunk back at times in non-conference play. After scoring 10 wins in their first 13 games, they've latched onto Smith's system, hoping for the team's first NCAA tourney at-large bid since 2005.

NOTES

Coach Smith experimented with a weird rotation system during the non-conference schedule. Five players in, five players out within the first five minutes. But now, he's simply playing his reserves as needed, knowing that he'll need his best on the floor for as long as possible during the conference schedule. In other words, Nolen will get more playing time at the point guard position and Hoffarber will see more time on the wing, but Kevin Payton, Jon Williams and Travis Busch will likely get PT in certain situations or if the guys ahead of them are in foul trouble.

PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — F Dan Coleman, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, C Spencer Tollackson, G Lawrence Westbrook, G Lawrence McKenzie. Key Subs - G Al Nolen, G Blake Hoffarber.

  • F Dan Coleman played well enough to earn conference player of the week honors after a stellar performance against Santa Clara Dec. 22. But the senior forward's stats have had a tendency to take a dive once the Big Ten schedule begins. After averaging 14.8 ppg during the team's non-conference schedule, Coleman could only muster up six points and two rebounds in the team's Big Ten opener at Michigan State, which might be a bad sign for the Gophers.

  • G Lawrence Westbrook led the nation in scoring as a prep player at Chandler High School in Chandler, Ariz. The second-year man, however, can't seem to get into the same offensive rhythm that helped him earn a starting spot, after he played well in two exhibition games. So far, he's averaging 7.3 ppg and shooting 42.3 percent from the field.

    IN FOCUS: Michigan State has the perimeter players and post presence to beat most of its Big Ten opponents. But the Spartans struggled mightily against the Gophers Jan. 5 in East Lansing in part because Michigan State only managed to hit 20 percent of its three-point attempts and couldn't capitalize off of a 45-25 rebounding edge. Minnesota gained a ton of confidence by playing the Spartans close at the Breslin Center, and they'll try to imitate that performance — with the exception of the missed free throws and careless turnovers at the end of the game — when Michigan State visits The Barn.

    ROSTER REPORT: F Busch is healthy again and slowly learning the system, after missing the first part of the season with a left leg bruise.

    G Al Nolen shut down Michigan State G Drew Neitzel, who only finished with four points in the conference opener for both teams. Nolen also had seven assists and four steals to maintain his post as the league's steals leader.

    G Blake Hoffarber continues to shoot nearly 45 percent from beyond the arc, but he hasn't played as many minutes recently as he has in the past in part because he still needs to grow as a defender.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "This team is for real; they're not a fluke." — Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo's take on Minnesota Jan. 5, after the Spartans nearly lost a 65-59 conference home opener.

    GAME REVIEW:

    Minnesota 83, Kennesaw State 66

    UNLV 81, Minnesota 64

    Michigan State 65, Minnesota 59

    GAME PREVIEW:

    vs. Northwestern, Wednesday, Jan. 9.

    at Penn State, Saturday, Jan. 12.

    vs. Indiana, Thursday, Jan. 17.

    vs. Michigan State, Sunday, Jan. 20.



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