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Minnesota head basketball coach Tubby Smith was honored for his 500th win before the start of a recent Gophers' game

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

NO. 13 GOPHERS VS. LAFAYETTE

6 p.m. today • Williams Arena • TV: Big Ten Network (1500-AM)

Success raises optimism for Gophers in Big Ten play

  • December 22, 2012 - 7:23 AM
The Big Ten Conference schedule lies ahead as a challenge that will either validate the No. 13 Gophers men's basketball team's good work to this point or expose its weaknesses against the elite talent of the league. Once those games begin, we will know a lot more about the team. But for now, a batch of superlatives paint a picture of where the Gophers are now and will be going forward. As they head into their final nonconference game Saturday, Amelia Rayno offers a report card of sorts.

TEAM

BIGGEST STRENGTH

It's been all about defense, defense, defense up to this point for the Gophers. Minnesota has been averaging a league best in both blocked shots and steals while limiting opponents to 37.1 percent shooting (third-best in the Big Ten Conference) and averaging almost 16 points a game more than their opponents. When the Gophers struggle in other aspects, defense has been what keeps them in games.

BIGGEST WEAKNESS

The Gophers are struggling most with shooting. While they've had strong games in that regard, the results simply haven't been consistent, and their average number of three-pointers per game (5.1) ranked third from the bottom of the Big Ten. With so many teams shooting the long ball well in this league (six teams make more than 33 percent from three-point range), the Gophers will need to turn on their outside game to keep up.

BIGGEST UNKNOWN

The frontcourt has been lauded for its depth and range of types since before the season started. But with the conference schedule right around the corner, we still don't have a sure picture of what the Gophers have down low. Starter Elliott Eliason has been lacking both in presence and scoring. Trevor Mbakwe is still gaining strength from his torn ACL a year ago. Mo Walker has the size the Gophers need but still needs to get better conditioned to run with a fast team. Is the frontcourt a strength? Can the Gophers work out the pieces? We have yet to find out.

INDIVIDUAL MOST CONSISTENT

Rodney Williams: After starting off his junior season with up-and-down performances, Williams has made a statement as a senior that he is indeed capable of leading this team. The forward has been remarkably consistent this season in scoring, rebounding and defense.

BIGGEST SURPRISE:

Maverick Ahanmisi: Two months into his junior season, Ahanmisi has aptly handled the role of backup point guard while nearly doubling his offensive stats from a year ago. The California native is shooting 52 percent from the field, 44 percent from three-point range. "There have been a couple games ... where he's really stepped up and kept us in games when Andre Hollins got in foul trouble or wasn't shooting the ball well," Mbakwe said. "He's kind of been proving his worth to our team so far."

BIGGEST SPARK IN GAMES

Austin Hollins: The junior can make things happen both offensively and defensively, but his scrappy on-the-ball defense has been key in the team's up-tempo play. "His steals get us pretty involved. It gets scoring in transition, which leads to dunks and and-ones, which gets the crowd involved pretty good," Joe Coleman said.

MVP

Williams: Andre Hollins had the single greatest game (41 points vs. Memphis). But while the beauty of this team has been that there hasn't been pressure on any one individual to take the reins most nights, it's hard to deny that Williams has been the steady, reliable force more than anyone else. He has shown the capability not only to be the dynamic leader, but also the steady leader, quietly having a great season.

MOST UNDERRATED

Coleman: The sophomore still has a ways to go in ball handling, but Coleman has substantially improved from a year ago and has been a big spark offensively. "He doesn't get the attention a lot of people get, but he does a lot of the scrappy work," Mbakwe said.

HOTTEST RIGHT NOW

Mbakwe: It's been a long road back for the sixth-year senior, but the forward is peaking at the right time.

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