5 story lines Jared Sullinger and Ohio State are undoubtedly tops in the Big Ten C6
In some ways, it feels like a total swap. Standing in the middle, looking back at the first half of the men's basketball conference schedule, two very different teams have worn the same set of Gophers uniforms.
The first team played the part of basement-dweller -- a squad that started out 0-4 and looked like it deserved to be there. The second team hauled itself out of that hole, winning four of its past five games and climbing firmly into the middle of the Big Ten pack.
Of course, the turnaround only matters if it sticks.
As the Gophers prepare for the start of the second half of the conference season Wednesday night at Iowa, they are hovering between the opportunity to make something of this surge and the peril of slipping back to where they started. After games at Iowa and Nebraska, they finish with five of seven at Williams Arena -- but four are against ranked opponents: Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana. With that in mind, let's look back at how the Gophers arrived at this point and ahead at some key factors that will determine where they are headed.
Then: As the Gophers headed into the Big Ten schedule, they were still trying to discover who they were without Trevor Mbakwe. They didn't lose in nonconference play without him, but they weren't blowing teams away and they weren't usually playing top competition. Once the conference schedule started, the Gophers again had to figure out where their strengths and weaknesses were. We were watching an unfinished project, and it was obvious.
Now: Sophomore guard Austin Hollins mentioned playing tough defense as the team's identity. Junior forward Rodney Williams said it's transition offense. Perhaps strong work in both areas leads to the identity coach Tubby Smith believes his team has carved out: A team that can execute down the stretch with multiple lineups and is never out of a game. "Our identity should be our poise. We've gained a lot of that," Smith said.
The Gophers have scrapped the high-low offense that characterized their old team and style in favor of more movement in a quicker flex offense. They have also adopted a scrappier mentality that has more players involved -- and as a result, more are contributing on a regular basis. They still don't have any stars, so they'll have to keep up that whole-team philosophy.
Then: Without the dominant player needed to make their old offense and lineup go, the Gophers started experimenting. A three-guard lineup was a good idea, but Smith had to do some tweaking before he found the right combination. In its original form -- with junior Julian Welch, freshman Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins -- none of the players seemed to know their role.
Now: Three versions later, Welch has developed into much more of a true point guard. Flanking him on the wings are Austin Hollins and freshman Joe Coleman, who has sparked the team with his aggressiveness.
"I don't mind any lineup, but this one seems to be working for us," Austin Hollins said. "So I'm going to roll with it."
The result is a crew that can manufacture the type of quick, up-tempo offense Smith has been searching for since the beginning of the season. When it works, it looks great. When the Gophers aren't communicating or aren't mentally dialed in, it looks sloppy. Focus and commitment to each possession is huge for the Gophers going forward.
The little things
Then: Perhaps there is no better example of the Gophers' changes than the Illinois-to-Illinois transformation. The first time around against Illinois in the Big Ten opener, the Gophers competed, but they slipped when it came to actually winning the game. The Gophers failed to make clutch free throws and layups -- baskets that could have headed off what became a four-game losing streak.
Now: It might have appeared the Gophers didn't deserve to win Saturday's game against the Illini, either. But on a night when the team's statistical leaders weren't playing even close to their best basketball, the Gophers found a way to win.
"Guys are gaining confidence that they can win in close situations," Smith said. "It's all about executing."
Minnesota has generally been getting better at the basics -- shooting, getting to the free-throw line, executing and playing tougher. Now, a key will be achieving consistency in those aspects, while rebounding more and turning the ball over less.