Last week against Lafeyette, with Trevor Mbakwe newly installed in the starting lineup, the Gophers’ bench still out-scored the starters.
Sure, Mbakwe only played 17 minutes (sitting out most of the second after getting hit above his right eye and getting stitches), but while coach Tubby Smith expressed frustration afterward at his starters not being as efficient as he’d like, the reality is, the Gophers’ depth has only become a greater part of their production as the year has worn on.
In the last five games, Minnesota’s reserves have averaged a total of 32.4 points a game, up from 21 points a game in the previous six.
Smith has been criticized some for his penchant for playing an extremely deep team, often 10 or 11 deep – the critique being that the starters are underused and unable to get comfortable while the rest of the team isn’t as deep talent-wise as the minutes would indicate.
But this year more than ever, his strategy seems to be paying off, with the bench full of role players who have gotten significant experience in the last couple years and are now very capable of contributing. The most impressive thing about this team is that it feels like every member of the team knows his role and works within that frame. The starters are unselfish and unpressured because they don’t care who scores, and the bench has worked with that same chemistry. The Gophers’ starting squad has plenty of talent, and the majority of the team has shown vast improvement. But Minnesota still doesn’t necessarily have many superstars; the success is mostly in the balance. So in that way, Smith playing so many players last year has been a big boost to this year’s squad.
Going forward, that should continue to be a strength for the Gophers, as long as it continues to work.
“In the Big Ten, it’s a lot more physical, it’s a lot more intense, so the adrenaline is pumping and the other team is a pretty talented team that’s pressuring you as well, not just in the full court, but in the half court,” Smith said. “So that’s our strength is our depth. We have to play to our strength.”