One of the most-used descriptors of the Gophers is that they are “deep.” Among those who have sung their praises this season, that is, almost invariably, an adjective that makes the list.
But there is a certain difference between depth and playing 10 guys – by the former definition, the Gophers have been deep ever since coach Tubby Smith took the reins in 2007.
Let me be clear: I believe this bunch of reserves from this particular Gophers team is greatly improved from a season ago, some in ways I truly never expected. Maverick Ahanmisi, while not without his limitations, has become a backup to trust. He’s become a needed spark off the bench when Andre Hollins is in foul trouble or simply just tired. A player like Andre Ingram has grown substantially when it comes to both his toughness and his understanding of the game. Much of that is probably a product of Smith’s system – had these guys not played significant minutes from the start, they likely wouldn’t have progressed as they have.
At the same time, four games into the conference season, the bench’s value has been stunted somewhat. Against Michigan State, Smith played a shortened bench in the second half, and rightfully so – considering how the team was fighting to stay in the game, and the reserves had proven unmatched against the Spartans’ starting five. But against Illinois and Indiana, the bench’s production has fallen off dramatically. Saturday against the Hoosiers, only Ahanmisi (six points) and Ingram (two points) put points on the board from the bench, and at Illinois, no reserve scored at all.
“You’re going to produce less with less minutes,” Smith said. “Look at [Saturday’s] game … a very hotly contested game, so I’m going to keep my best players and my best scorers in the game as long as I can, and that’s just the way it is.”
Certainly, Smith has been playing his reserves less than usual (although let’s be honest, that simply hasn’t always been “just the way it is”). But the dropoff in minutes shouldn’t create such a DRAMATIC dropoff in offensive production.
“We know we need our bench and obviously it doesn’t always [tell the story] by the scoring – sometimes it’s playing defense, taking care of the ball, stuff like that,” Trevor Mbakwe said. “Our bench depth doesn’t always depend on scoring. There’s a lot of things our bench can bring to us, like energy, defense.”
OK – sure. But against a high-octane, super-efficient team like Indiana -- and with five reserves in all at once – yes, they do need to score. The Gophers’ cannot endure five minutes of holding their breath and hoping that the opponent doesn’t go on too much of a run.
Smith has stated that he now trusts his starters to play longer stretches (even if they do look exhausted at times) because they are more conditioned than they were at the start of the season, and frankly, they’re more needed, which is all fine and good.
But used in the capacity that Smith does – for however many minutes that is – the bench needs to produce.
“We didn’t get the production out of Oto [Osenieks] that I’d hoped or Julian [Welch] [in the Indiana game], but they played 6,7,10 minutes,” Smith said. “I think Andre Ingram gave us good minutes.
“I don’t know how many more minutes we can --,” Smith started, “You know, they can get more minute when they’re – well, I thought one of the things that happened to us was we got quality rest for our starters, and that was a big key for getting us back in the game.”
Against Indiana, the bench did play a role in helping the Gophers off to one of their first significant runs on their way back to making the game competitive. Ingram made a jumper. Ahnamisi hit a 3-pointer. And with that the Gophers had completed a 10-3 run. But the concern is the long, scoreless stretches as the opponent makes a run of their own. That simply will not fly going forward.