Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was not that Trevor Mbakwe started in place of Elliott Eliason(we caught rumor of that on Friday and many of us thought starting him heading into the Big Ten was the plan all along), but instead that Eliason didn’t play – at all.
After starting every game this season – and every game since Ralph Sampson III went down at the end of February last year, for that matter – Eliason didn’t get a single minute on Saturday, leaving those on Twitter to speculate about whether the center was hurt or sick or just what was going on.
In the end, coach Tubby Smith didn’t shed much light on exactly what happened, calling Eliason’s benching “coach’s decision,” but his words made it evident that the DNP was disciplinary in nature.
“There’s nothing wrong,” he said. “We just wanted to make sure he understood some things as well. So that’s basically what it’s all about.”
Smith said that Eliason will “be back, he’ll be ready to play,” although he wouldn’t specify when. The other curious thing, though, was that Smith hesitated to commit to the lineup he threw out on Saturday going forward.
The Gophers got out to a slow start against Lafayette but quickly regrouped. Other than Joe Coleman, no starter finished with more than eight points (Rodney Williams), but the team’s depth and balance was spectacular in the victory. But the pause at the start was enough to make Smith ponder whether he would keep that five in tact going forward.
“I didn’t like it at first,” he said. “I think we looked a little winded and so I wasn’t very impressed with it at first. But again it was a change. They were coming off 11 days and the first time Trevor was in the lineup, the first time Elliott hadn’t been in the lineup in a long time … We’ll continue to evaluate. Like I said tonight, I wasn’t impressed with the start of the game, so we’ll see.”
The other possibility, of course, is that Mbakwe starting was actually a reaction to his plan to bench Eliason for a game. Those are things we’ll never know.
Other notes from tonight’s 75-50 win over Lafayette:
• Mbakwe was elbowed in the face shortly after starting the second half and received five stitches over his right eye in the locker room during the game. After that he didn’t return. Mbakwe said he told the coaches right afterward that he was fine – “I was ready to go,” he said, but that the team decided to be cautious. Smith said afterward that “there was no reason for him to play. We were up by 20.”
• Because of playing only 17 minutes total, Mbakwe didn’t get as much time as expected with Rodney Williams. Heading into Big Ten play, that lineup is still somewhat unexplored. But Williams isn’t concerned. “We play enough together to know what’s going on out there,” he said. “So it’s alright. It was more about getting other guys minutes tonight.”
• Speaking of those “other guys,” the Gophers got some fine performances from both Mo Walker (eight points) -- who got plenty of minutes with Eliason out and looked better than he has in a while – and Andre Ingram, who had six points and six rebounds and converted some nice tips in the second half. His improvement continues to impress me.
• The bench overall played really well tonight. Every man on the roster other than Eliason saw minutes. Oto Osenieks led the bunch with 10 points (tying a career-high) and four rebounds. With Wally Ellenson’s redshirt gone and the freshman representing competition as a shooting specialist, tonight was a big game for Osenieks.
• Ellenson didn’t play at all in the first half, but got 15 minutes in the second and flexed his athleticism -- with a reverse dunk – and his shooting skills, with a 3-pointer. The freshman finished with five points and four rebounds. Per Smith’s rules, media has not been allowed to talk to Ellenson (because he’s a freshman), but that embargo ends at the start of Big Ten play.
• The Gophers had just one turnover in the second half and nine overall, tying a season low. They last had that few turnovers in the season opener against American. Overall, the team has shown big improvement in that area over the last several games. Tonight, the Gophers countered with 17 assists.
• The Gophers’ rebounding was rampant and a true team effort tonight. Eight players finished with four or more. The team had 46 overall (to Lafayette’s 25). Julian Welch and Ingram tied for the most with six.
• Minnesota looked jolted by Lafayette’s 2-3 zone early on in the game, a defense where they have continually struggled, although they haven’t seen much of it so far this season.
• Coleman had four dunks tonight, and led the team with 12 points overall. “That’s the first time I’ve seen Joe get four dunks in one game but we’re going to need Joe to attack the basket like that every time because he’s very capable of doing it,” Williams said. “So that’s good to see as well.”