If starters flounder, Tubby's ready to send in the reserves

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 9, 2012 - 6:55 AM

Substituting five players at once isn't common, but Gophers subs say playing together in practice and games has developed familiarity.

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The reserves for Gophers men's basketball coach Tubby Smith have scored 79 points in the team's last two victories, over Illinois and Nebraska.

Photo: Anna Reed, Associated Press

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Tubby Smith doesn't even consider it unusual.

The Gophers men's basketball coach isn't trying to break new ground or stand out from other coaches. To Smith, mass substitution -- sending five reserves in for five starters -- just makes sense.

And now more than ever -- with the season entering crunch time and bench players often playing the role of hero -- we're seeing what might be a tangible result of the five-for-five switch. The reserves who make up the "second team" have played a big role heading into Thursday's game against Wisconsin. The bench has outscored the starters in the Gophers' two most recent victories.

"They probably know each other better because [in games] and in practice they play all the time together," Smith said. "Therefore, their execution is a lot better."

Is that why he does it? Smith shrugs.

"You don't have a lot of time in practice to change it up," he said. "It's hard because there a lot of things that you are still teaching. ... We just flip-flop it. For instance, [in practice] if one team is executing Wisconsin's [offense] or defending Wisconsin's play, then the next team is going to flip-flop."

As a result, the second unit -- usually guards Maverick Ahanmisi, Andre Hollins and Chip Armelin, forward Oto Osenieks and center Elliott Eliason -- has had plenty of opportunities to click, and the familiarity is showing.

"I think it helps from some chemistry aspect," Eliason said. "We know how each other plays and what to expect out of everyone that is on the floor with you at the same time. So it definitely does help from a chemistry and a flow aspect."

Against Nebraska, the bench played a big part in keeping the Gophers competitive in a first half in which the starters looked sluggish, and the reserves pulled the team out of a stalemate by creating some distance with an 8-0 run in the second half.

Armelin scored 14 points against Illinois and a career-high 15 at Nebraska to lead a bench that scored 79 combined points in those victories, 12 more than the starters.

The flip side is the starters aren't scoring as much. Freshman guard Joe Coleman has been held scoreless in two consecutive games. Junior forward Rodney Williams has been in single digits for three games in a row.

"It's not like there's a big disparity," Smith said. "There's not a big gap between the starting level, between the guys who are starting and the guys who are coming off the bench. That is why they are so effective."

With only seven games left on the schedule -- including five teams currently ranked in the top 25 -- and the team's starters struggling to consistently score, the bench's effectiveness could be critical in determining whether the Gophers make the NCAA tournament or let an up-and-down season fizzle down the stretch.

The Gophers look best when they're playing a fast, up-tempo game, and the bench -- and the switches -- play a critical role in that identity, players say.

"I think [Smith] does that because we like to run, we like to run the floor and get up and down," Austin Hollins said. "It doesn't frustrate us at all, because sometimes you just get tired, and he's trying to rotate people in and get fresh legs on defense and offense running the floor. So I would say it's a good thing. ... Everyone's working hard and the competitiveness in practice is good and I think that helps when it comes to game time."

It certainly has so far. The Gophers will see if it can help them get their second victory against a ranked opponent this season after beating then-No. 7 Indiana on the road last month -- and if it can help them make the final push into the NCAA tournament.

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