Joe Coleman knows this year’s Gophers team has a lot of depth, and therefore lots of options.
Things have changed from a year ago, when Coleman was inserted into the lineup partly out of necessity and a lack of productive bodies.
That's not the case this season – when the Gophers have a few different ways to approach a starting five -- and so it’s all the more important for the sophomore to assert himself as a viable piece of the starting lineup.
He did that Thursday, leading the Gophers with a game-high 21 points and added three rebounds, two blocks, two steals and an assist.
But with the lineup likely to change a lot in the coming weeks, Coleman could be a major piece that decides how the Gophers will play.
If he continues to build on his freshman season and be a strong asset in the lineup, the Gophers could look similar to last season, except with Trevor Mbakwe and Mo Walker often playing center.
If Coleman doesn’t prove he can contribute, the Gophers might decide they need to go big, editing the Minneapolis native from the starting five and sliding Rodney Williams over to small forward.
“We’ve got a lot of people that can score on any given night, and that’s the good thing about our team,” he said.
It’s also a reminder to put up or sit down.
Last season, Coleman struggled defensively, and getting to the basket when he was heavily guarded. As a freshman, he clearly lacked clear vision of everything going on, and at times looked confused during plays.
Thursday, he said his comfort level had increased significantly with the start of his second season, and that he is starting to feel more like a guard on the floor.
“Definitely this year I feel more comfortable and know more of what coach wants out of me and what’s best for the team so I just try to push that,” he said. “I’m hoping to handle the ball a little bit more this year. Coming off ball screens is something we’ve been working on and it was pretty successful tonight.”
Developing a solid mid-range game will continue to be a key for Coleman as he tries to hold onto his starting role. Most of Coleman’s scores came around the basket on Thursday, but it was still a very promising start.
“He just plays so hard,” coach Tubby Smith said.
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From the Gophers’ perspective, any game they can gut out or steal is a big victory.
Through five games, Nebraska Omaha is playing at the third fastest pace in Division I college basketball. (And one of the Mavericks top players is a former Chaska star.)
The Gophers have collected 48 fouls in the last two games, and foul trouble contributed to Minnesota’s 81-68 loss to Texas Tech on Sunday.
The question now is whether Minnesota can move past a bad long weekend and pick up some steam through the rest of this month and next – or whether a not-so-easy slate between now and New Year's will put the Gophers on the path toward the basement.
The Gophers are young and inexperienced and while the future may be bright, the present is tenuous, at best.