What was meant to be simply an honor to this year's seniors has turned into the Gophers' potential new starting lineup as they barrel toward the NCAA tournament.
On Saturday against Penn State, Minnesota coach Tubby Smith threw out a special starting five in ode to "Senior Day" -- all four seniors started, including Julian Welch and Andre Ingram, who have come off the bench all season.
Now, after watching that group's success -- albeit against basement-dweller Penn State -- Smith is perhaps ready to give it a try again.
"Those guys that we started played extremely well together, so they may get the nod tomorrow," Smith said. "I haven’t really decided yet.. But I like the way Julian played – seven assists, no turnovers. He really defended. We were able to shut down their best players in [D.J] Newbill and [Jermaine] Marshall, and the reason was that we probably had our best defensive team on the court. Andre Ingram is one of our better, if not our best post defender. He’s probably a pretty heady player in that area."
Smith praised the ultimate size of the lineup around Trevor Mbakwe as well, noting that it gave Rodney Williams the freedom to work more from the perimeter -- where the forward spends lot of time anyway. The coach also liked the spark he got from Joe Coleman -- who had stuggled offensively until the Penn State game, when the sophomore went off for 12 points in 13 minutes -- off the bench.
The real issue would be that in that lineup, Andre Hollins, often referred to as the leader of the team, would be a reserve. On Saturday, Austin Hollins was the lone non-senior to start with the bunch. Smith has been using Andre off the ball a lot more in attempt to re-energize the other things the point guard does well, like, for instance score, an aspect that has been up-and-down for the sophomore. But bringing him off the bench is a different story.
"Dre is our leading scorer and probably our best all-around player, so it’s tough to keep a guy like him out of the lineup," Smith said.
Other notes from tonight's media access:
- Smith has been dealing with a bad sore throat last week and early this week, staying home sick for most of Monday. Smith was back on Tuesday, though, saying that after a few rounds of antibiotics and steroids over the last couple days, he's feeling better.
- Elliott Eliason seems to have picked up the bug, and at a bad time as Nebraska is a home-coming for the Chadron, Neb. native. He had a sore throat on Tuesday. "It's going around," he said.
- If Welch does start, it will be a surprise to him. "[Coach] hasn’t said anything to me," he said. At the same time, the senior who was a starter a year ago would welcome it, saying he enjoyed his first start of the year on Saturday. "I was way more comfortable," he said. "It felt more like last year, so it was definitely a good experience ... It was a little weird, but it was a good weird."
- Count Mbakwe as a fan of the Gophers' recent offensive adjustments -- Smith has basically simplified Minnesota's half-court and made a return to the flex offense that the team used successfully a year ago in the Indiana game. "Coach has been great," Mbakwe said. "I know he went to the blackboard and said ‘How can we improve offensively?’ We went through a stretch where it felt like it was hard for us to score 30 points in games. Lately we were able to score more points."
- Mbakwe said his recent proliferation inside is a blend of those changes plus him making an effort to call for the ball more and aggressively go to the hoop once he has it. "I think previously, I was only shooting four or five times a game," he said. "And I made put more emphasis on myself to just be more aggressive and getting more of a feel during games. And part of it has been the change in offense and getting the ball more inside. We’ve been working the high-low to me and Elliott."