This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.

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Gophers pregame: Malik Smith's role will expand with Hollins out

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball, Gophers coaches, Gophers players Updated: January 26, 2014 - 1:55 PM

Tonight's game vs. Nebraska will be broadcasted on BTN and 1500-a.m. Tip-off is at 5 p.m.

Malik Smith had to get used to playing a smaller role when he came to Minnesota before the start of the season.

Now, he's got to learn how to play a bigger one, again.

With starting guard Andre Hollins out indefinitely with a severe left ankle sprain, Smith becomes infinitely more important. The Boston native, who has brought a big spark off the bench this season, will now move into the starting lineup in Hollins' place, and attempt, and help the team try to sustain the early success they've built.

Through 20 games, Smith has proven to be a major factor in what the Gophers do. If some might have been nervous to hear of this scenario -- Smith claiming a starting role with Hollins out -- there is a degree of cautious confidence now, the guard showing that he can be more than a perimeter shooter, and that he belongs at this level.

Still, there will be plenty for Smith, who is averaging 9.8 points a game, to continue to improve as he plays more big minutes.

"He has shown that he can handle the big stage, certainly," Pitino said. "I don't worry about that as much as just defensively, doing the right thing. Offensively, not trying to do too much."

Smith got no warning that his role was about to expand dramatically -- getting called on just a few seconds into the Gophers game vs. Wisconsin, after Hollins left the game when he landed on defender Josh Gasser's foot coming down from a jump shot.

But the senior responded beautifully, authoring an 14-point, three-rebound, three-assist performance that might have been his best of the season based on how complete a game he played.

He seems poised to make the next jump, which will be required of him -- a luxury for the Gophers. Not every team has as strong a sixth man as Smith.

The trick, however, is replacing his spark as a reserve. The Gophers' depth takes a critical hit with Hollins gone, and Daquein McNeil will likely be relied on in a much bigger capacity.

"He was really, really big vs. Wisconsin certainly and he's going to have to step up," Pitino said of Malik. "But it's not going to be all on him. What I'd really liked about the Wisconsin game was everybody stepped up."

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