Tubby Smith granted locker room access to reporters, and there they found personalities worth knowing.
When Clem Haskins coached the Gophers, reporters visited the Williams Arena locker room after the game. There, they came to fully appreciate Gophers stars as teammates -- and characters. Minnesotans got to know Willie Burton and Jim Shikenjanski better because they could be found needling each other, then donning goofy winter hats before leaving the Barn.
When Dan Monson coached the Gophers, reporters found the players in the team rec room, where Spencer Tollackson and Aaron Robinson would offer quotes indicating that they were more interesting as humans than as basketball players.
Friday night, following the Gophers' 72-36 victory over American in the season opener, coach Tubby Smith allowed reporters to conduct interviews in the home locker room for the first time in his tenure. Instead of interviewing a few coach-picked players in a crowded room, where athletes are most likely to regurgitate clichés, reporters were granted access to the small, square room where players feel most comfortable.
Smith made a good decision.
Trevor Mbakwe, most known via news reports as the subject of legal troubles, made fun of his new role off the bench. "I want to be the 11th man of the year,'' he said. "Someone needs to create that award. You win that, you get a certificate to McDonald's or something.''
Now it can be told: The man's funny.
Andre Hollins watched the pack approach fellow guard Austin Hollins. Andre started laughing and snapping photos. "That,'' he said, "is going right to Instagram.''
Andre said he developed a bond with Austin as soon as he arrived on campus. "We know how to play off each other,'' he said.
Is Austin the team's best defender? "He's one of them,'' Andre said. "The other day in practice, he had 20 steals.''
Twenty? "He's so long and lanky, he has that great reach, he's always getting his hand on passes,'' Andre said.
Rodney Williams sat across the way. Did he mind having reporters in the room? "I like it,'' he said. "It's a lot better than going upstairs.''
Teams do themselves great favors by humanizing their players. First impression after one locker room visit: This is a likeable bunch that likes playing together. If they're as good as they should be, Minnesotans may want to know a lot more about them.
The danger of playing a team like American in your opener is that teams like American are hard to take seriously. The Gophers had no problem with that, jumping to a 15-0 lead.
Dozens cheered. The crowd Friday night at the Barn was so small that the Kiss Cam kept showing the same two people, over and over.
Some college programs opened their seasons by playing on an aircraft carrier. The Gophers imitated a destroyer.
While I wouldn't encourage anyone to spend good money to watch a ritual cupcake-smashing, there are reasons to be excited about this edition of Tubby Ball.
He might have the most athletic lineup in the Big Ten, once Mbakwe becomes a starter again. Austin Hollins is long and savvy. Mbakwe could lead the conference in rebounding. Williams is as talented as anyone in the conference. Andre Hollins creates pace and space.
Smith's Minnesota teams have been far more entertaining in the nonconference schedule than in the Big Ten. During conference play, his substitution patterns appear drawn out of a hat.
This year, Smith needs to allow his highly athletic team to run, and he needs outside shooting. Can you match the Hollins to the need?
This week I spoke with three basketball people who know the Gophers program. Two said Andre was the key to this team's fortunes. One said it was Austin.
Austin is Smith's best defender and best shooter. Can he guard the opponents' best scorer and still have enough life in his legs to hit three-pointers in the second half?
Andre controls the offense and leads the break. Can he prove as effective in the Big Ten as he was in the NIT?
If the answers are "Yes,'' Mbakwe may have a shot at that 11th Man of the Year Award.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. email@example.com
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