Big Ten Preview: Minnesota basketball writer Brian Polking continues his series previewing each of the Big Ten teams with Minnesota, including an exclusive interview with assistant head coach Ron Jirsa regarding expectations for the Golden Gophers under new head coach Tubby Smith this season.

The Minnesota men's basketball team's 9-22 record last season was the worst overall mark in the Big Ten, but now Tubby Smith is calling the shots.

Smith is a proven winner and with three returning senior starters that all averaged double figures in scoring at his disposal, the Golden Gophers are hopeful for a bounce-back season.

"Tubby has had a history of success," Minnesota associate head coach Ron Jirsa told "He's going to bring that same winning mentality here, and he's excited about the challenge of playing in a great league."

Along with a new mentality, Smith also brings a new, defensive-oriented mentality that fits the style of play in the Big Ten. The challenge comes with getting the players that are already with the Gophers to buy into and understand "Tubbyball."

"His style of play is a proven style of play," Jirsa said. "Every new coach has to try to use the people that are there and at the same time do the things he has done and had success with in past years. There's a little give and take there."

Luckily for Smith, he inherits forward Dan Coleman, center Spencer Tollackson and guard Lawrence McKenzie – three proven, senior starters. All three face the difficult task of leading the Gophers on and off the court while at the same time learning and adjusting to a new system themselves.

"They are the three captains, and as a group they have the leadership capabilities," Jirsa said. "They have a new coach in their senior year and that's never easy, but they've responded well and worked really hard. They're open to trying and working hard at the new system because they want their senior year to be a great one."

The trio combined to average 41.1 points per game last season, and each player has a different strength that adds to the Minnesota offense. McKenzie led the team three-pointers made, connecting on 37.7 percent of his attempts. Tollackson is a steady scorer in the paint, shooting 53.2 percent and leading the team in rebounding. Coleman is an all-around scorer with three-point range and the ability to get to the foul line, leading the Gophers in free throw attempts last year.

The rest of the starting lineup is still unclear.

"Nothing is set in stone," Jirsa said. "At this time, I don't know who the other two guys are. It will just be something that evolves over the early part of this season."

He added that the new coaching staff just needs more time to observe the players to better understand their strengths and weaknesses.

"It's so early," Jirsa said. "I can't ever recall playing an exhibition game with only a week and a half of practice. I believe there are many guys on the team that have the potential to elevate what they've done in the past."

One player the Gophers know won't be contributing this year is junior forward Brandon Smith, who announced he is leaving the program. Two players that are expected to pick up the slack are freshman guards Blake Hoffarber and Al Nolen.

"Right now we only have 10 guys that are healthy and ready to go, and I think (the freshmen) are going to get a lot of opportunities right away and a chance to make significant contributions," Jirsa said.

Regardless of who is starting, every player on the Gophers' roster understands what is expected of them this year.

"Our theme is that everyone overachieves and does a little more than what's expected and tries to outdo what they believe their capabilities are," Jirsa said.

Overachieving is a must for a team that struggled last year and now faces 18 games in a conference where it went just 3-13 a year ago. The out-of-conference schedule is no walk in the park either with road games at Florida State, Iowa State and UNLV.

"The Big Ten is tough enough to give you anything you need as far as strength of schedule, but along the way you want to face some challenges," Jirsa said.

Jirsa said there was no set goal in terms of wins and losses, but said he expects the team to improve as the year goes on and the players begin to understand the new system better.

"It's hard to predict any numbers, but our goal is to keep improving every game and try to over achieve," the assistant coach said. "We want to do the little things because if you do the little things right it will take care of the big things."


Last year's record: 9-22 overall, 3-13 Big Ten

Head coach: Orlando "Tubby" Smith, first season

Career record: 387-145

Record at Minnesota: 0-0

Leading returning scorer: Lawrence McKenzie, 14.9 ppg

Leading returning rebounder: Dan Coleman, 6.0 rpg

Season opener: Army, home, Nov. 10

Big Ten opener: at Michigan State, Jan. 5 (8 p.m. EST, Big Ten Network)

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