MADISON, WIS. - One of the top descriptors used to characterize this Gophers men's basketball team at the start of the season was "deep."
Coach Tubby Smith was playing 10, 11, 12 guys, and for the most part, the reserves were giving the starters breaks, scoring at a decent clip, keeping the team in the game -- all the things you want a productive bench to do.
But the No. 12 Gophers' "depth" has gone from a strength to a liability, with Smith consistently playing bunches of reserves in lengthy stretches -- often all at once -- even while the production has fallen significantly.
And on Saturday at Wisconsin, a team that has risen to relevance this season and a place the Gophers have fared poorly, Minnesota will need its entire team at full strength and effectiveness if it hopes to break a three-game losing streak.
That includes a bench that has scored only 23 points over the past four games.
"I think [the bench] is still our strength. We just have to use them more," Smith said. "I've done a poor job of using them. We're trying to ratchet up the intensity so guys know they can't pace themselves. Even though we've had sort of a drop-off when we got to the bench ... I think they have potential to really help us."
While the Badgers have received positive results from their bench in Big Ten play, the Gophers cannot claim the same. Since league play started, Wisconsin bench has used 23 percent of available minutes, while producing 27 percent of the offense. Meanwhile, Gophers reserves have occupied 24 percent of available minutes -- but have managed only 13 percent of the team's offense.
Compare that with the nonconference schedule, when Smith donated 37 percent of minutes to a bench that included now-starter Trevor Mbakwe, but it produced 35 percent of the scoring.
"That made us such a dangerous team at the beginning of the season, having a deep bench, and we just have to get back to that," Mbakwe said. "We still believe in one another, knowing that when the bench comes in there's not much of a drop-off and we just have to get those guys' confidence up. We're going to need them if we're going to go deep this year."
There have been some positive developments. Julian Welch has broken out some in the past two games, scoring a season-high eight points in a critical role against Michigan, and scoring seven against Northwestern while helping the Gophers initially stay afloat in the first half. With Welch's offensive improvements and his abilities on defense, the senior has become the backup point guard for Andre Hollins and shown potential to be a trusted sixth man.
"Michigan was a game where we were down again and Dre got in foul trouble," he said. "I just went in kind of looking for my shot and they fell."
Unfortunately for the Gophers, they haven't fallen much lately for just about anyone else.
Smith has continually said Wally Ellenson is "way behind" in knowing the system, but the freshman subbed in ahead of Oto Osenieks against the Wildcats because of Osenieks' struggles. Andre Ingram hasn't scored in two games. Elliott Eliason, while probably the team's best backup post player at this point, hasn't shown even close to the same spark he contributed last year in the postseason.
Maverick Ahanmisi got replaced as backup point guard because of his affinity for turnovers. Mo Walker has struggled to play with this up-tempo team because of weight concerns, though Smith said Walker likely will see more minutes going forward.
"I feel like [the bench] is doing fine, but sometimes we get a little inconsistent in our play," Ahanmisi said. "I think it shows we're a little nervous, thinking too much. We need to let the game come to us. We just need to play."