Wins Matter, Rotation Doesn't

Gophers coach Tubby Smith hasn't settled on a rotation, but that hasn't stopped his team from the second-most wins to start a season.

Tubby Smith can't seem to make up his mind on a rotation.

Doesn't matter.

The Gophers are perfect despite starting six different lineups through 12 nonconference games.

The 12-0 start to the season is the best since the 1948-49 team started the season 13-0. The Gophers can equal that mark with a victory in their league opener at Michigan State on New Year's Eve.

Even more impressive, though, is the fact Smith can't seem to settle on a rotation, yet that unsettled facet of the team's overall makeup isn't preventing Minnesota from winning. Ten players were averaging double figures in minutes, and two others (Devron Bostick and Jonathan Williams) averaged at least nine entering Wednesday's game at Michigan State.

"I think the guys feel good about one another," Smith told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "I think that's been the key to playing unselfishly. Guys are staying alert and staying ready, so they can be productive when they have an opportunity."

Smith loves the balanced minutes, but admits he won't be able to spread the minutes over 12 players as easily in conference play.

"We know there's going to be times when we're going to go with the people that are playing the best," he said. "Guys are going to have to log more minutes."

Nothing might be finalized yet, but Smith is starting to get into a rhythm. Freshman Ralph Sampson III has started the last four games, pairing with freshman Colton Iverson to give the Gophers a pair of 7-footers in the starting lineup. It's the tallest frontcourt in the league, and the big men seem to be hitting their stride at the right time — Sampson had a career-high 17 points in a Dec. 28 victory against High Point.

If Sampson and Iverson continue to progress at this pace, the Gophers could arrive a year early and be a surprising force in the Big Ten race.

NOTES

  • The Gophers have never lost a nonconference game at home under Tubby Smith. They will end the season 17-0 under Smith at Williams Arena in non-league games, and the Gophers have won 19 straight dating back to the Jim Molinari era.

  • Looking for the map to perfection for Tubby Smith's Gophers? Many have pointed to the lowly combined RPI of Minnesota's opponents. That would discredit what kind of team Rick Pitino could have at Louisville, and also the gold-standard defense the team has played while not venturing far from "The Barn."

  • Minnesota was allowing 61.1 points at home under Smith, including 60.9 per game this season, through Dec. 28.

  • The most difficult spot to determine in Tubby Smith's rotation is shooting guard, where Blake Hoffarber and Lawrence Westbrook are the two best perimeter shooters. But Smith likes the firepower both bring off the bench, and has toyed with the idea of not starting either one.

  • G Al Nolen has 75 assists and 18 turnovers through the first 12 games.

  • G Lawrence Westbrook scored in double figures in six of the final seven non-conference games.

  • G Blake Hoffarber is 26 of 56 (46%) on three-pointers this season. That figure is up from the 43% he shot last season, when his 70 three-pointers ranked as fourth-most in school history.

    PLAYER ROTATION: Usual starters — G Lawrence Westbrook, G Al Nolen, F Damian Johnson, F Ralph Sampson III, C Colton Iverson. Key subs — G Blake Hoffarber, F Paul Carter, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, G/F Travis Busch, G Devoe Joseph, G Devron Bostick.

    IN FOCUS: The Gophers host the Buckeyes to start 2009 in a matchup of perhaps two of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes are without junior David Lighty — arguably their best player — who is out at least a month with a broken bone in his foot. Combined, the two teams entered conference play 21-1.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think they've been working really good together. I like their chemistry and the fact that they communicate really well. They've been getting in foul trouble, so it would be great if they can take care of that." — coach Tubby Smith on the tandem of Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III, who have combined for 43 blocked shots.

    GAME REVIEW:

    Minnesota 70, Louisville 64

    Minnesota 80, Southeastern Louisiana 71

    Minnesota 82, High Point 56

    GAME PREVIEW:

    vs. Michigan State, Wednesday, Dec. 31

    vs. Ohio State, Saturday, Jan. 3

    at Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 8

    vs. Penn State, Sunday, Jan. 11


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