**aMAILia bag is a new installment on this blog where I answer the questions you send me throughout the week. Send your queries to amelia.rayno@startribune.com**

Let’s jump right in.

What are your thoughts on Tubby Smith's offensive schemes and plays compared to maybe more pro-style offenses? Does he try to fit the players to his scheme or modify his scheme for the players on his squad?

--Brandon Proctor

Hm. Good question, Brandon. Smith obviously has a distinct vision of what he wants in an offense and a roster – so to skip ahead to the second part of your question, I think he recruits for his system. He’s made it clear that he’s not a fan of running plays specifically geared toward an individual’s talents – rather, he wants them to succeed in the overall scheme. The high-low offense Smith uses … would it transfer directly to the NBA? No, but most NBA offenses wouldn’t be very feasible with this crew. These Gophers are generally not good enough ball handlers for the pick-and-roll, not quite efficient enough from range for a Princeton- type offense, and something like a triangle offense is too complex.

And the fact is, while I’d like to see just a little more movement/screening/cuts away from the ball all around, for this roster, (and when it’s done well) it works. The Gophers have shown some success again with the high-low screens after dumbing down the offense a little to a basic flex during the Big Ten schedule last season (to put their guards – the strength at the time – in better position to penetrate). This season, with Mbakwe back and a deeper, more talented frontcourt, the high-low makes sense again.

Look, it’s not perfect, and at times the Gophers still look stagnant in the half court. But their execution of the offense – along with everything else with this squad – has markedly improved.

Who is going to guard Michigan State's Appling? He is lightning fast. Sparty loves to play fast. Do we play fast too? Bet not.

--Lance Olson

OK, first question first. I would guess that Smith would have Andre Hollins on Appling, or maybe some combination of Hollins and Austin Hollins (the team’s best defender). Don’t forget that there’s freshman Gary Harris too, to be dealt with, who has actually been more efficient shooting-wise and tighter ballhandling wise than Appling has with the minutes he’s gotten. Smith is putting more trust in Andre Hollins to take on tough defensive assignments, and for the most part the sophomore has improved there (of course there are still games like Saturday when he gets into both foul trouble and turnover trouble).

As far as the playing fast bit, obviously that is the Gophers intention in every game, and frankly, they’re a lot better at it than they were a year ago. What it’s going to come down to, once again, is defense. If the Gophers have been effectively defensively on the Spartans, they will be able to get out in transition. If they struggle there, then yes, Minnesota’s uptempo game will be impacted. Keep in mind, however, that this is not the Spartans team of last year. It should be a big challenge for the Gophers, for sure, but Michigan State certainly doesn’t look unbeatable (see Miami game). I’ll go ahead and go on the record here to say the Gophers should be in that game for 40 minutes and should pull out the win. At this time, Minnesota is higher ranked than the Spartans and need two victories in those first two home games before heading out on a tough road trip (Illinois and Indiana).

Do you think Trevor Mbakwe will start once the B1G season starts? I read in your column how he’s not 100 percent yet. Is he not starting now because of his injury or is it more of a punishment for his off-the-court issues last summer?

--Tim Mueller

I’m not sure that he does. You can place me firmly in the camp of those that think he SHOULD -- it’s clear he operates at a higher level when working with the starters. But I also think there are a lot of reasons Smith likes him coming off the bench (“Punishment” is not one of them. I don’t think Smith would arbitrarily hurt the team to teach Mbakwe a lesson). Physically, I think Mbakwe is fine or very close to it. He said on Saturday that he believes he’s 100 percent now. His knee stiffens a little after games, but that’s normal, he said, according to his doctors. The only real remaining step is to get his clunky knee brace taken off, which should happen sometime in the next month.

But as Smith stated the other day, Mbakwe really does bring a pop off the bench when the Gophers have to make a lineup change. And in the last game, the coaching staff played him a lot of minutes with Rodney Williams and the rest of the first group, which worked out pretty nicely. It might be that that is Smith’s idea for the rest of the year. It wouldn’t surprise me all that much because the coach has been very adamant, so far, about keeping things the way they are.

Minnesota or Illinois or Michigan State? Which finishes higher in the conference?

--Paul Kopitz

I love answering questions like these because it’s so early and so much changes and yet everyone will hold me to this single projection I make right here. (*SARCASM ALERT*)

But I’ll step out on a limb (because that’s what I do) and say the Gophers finish higher. That puts the Gophers at No. 4 in the conference by my count: Indiana. Michigan, Ohio State, Minnesota. I think the Illini – while obviously more talented than we first reckoned – are playing over their skis a little bit and should bounce back during the conference schedule. Michigan State (see above) is talented, but not the team it was a year ago. The Gophers have the talent to get there – now we’ll see if they do.

If you can only do one B1G venue before you die, it should be _____ ?


I’m assuming you’re talking just hoops here, so I’ll say Assembly Hall in Indiana, which I was able to visit for the first time last year (and thankfully did not die afterward). The history is enough to make you crave a visit, but watching the game there is an impressive experience as well. The bowl seems to stretch almost vertically upward and when the students get going, things get LOUD.

Not counting turnovers, what is the Gophers’ biggest weakness?


Shooting. The Gophers have had their good games in that regard, but it hasn’t been consistent, even from one half to another (for whatever reason, the Gophers often start out shooting well and trail off). But that strength is going to be necessary when the Gophers get to Big Ten play and their defense isn’t as stifling for better conference offenses.


If I travel to any of your former home towns, where should I go for Sasquatch viewing?


Well, first of all, I only have one home town and that is Cary, NC (outside of Raleigh). If you’re around North Carolina, I’d say head up to the mountains. Squatches have been seen all along the Appalachian trail. As for Boston, I have heard of Bigfoots around the Freetown State Forest area and Fall River. Happy viewing!

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