Minnesota basketball wants to remain energized

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 12, 2012 - 5:05 PM

So far this fall, the Gophers have looked like a team playing at full speed on both ends of the floor.

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Gophers Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams Jr. trapped American University's Daniel Munoz on Friday night.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Quick: What is the biggest difference between last year's Gophers men's basketball team -- the one that went 6-12 in the Big Ten and missed the NCAA tournament -- and this year's group?

No, it's not the return of Trevor Mbakwe and Mo Walker -- not yet, anyway. The big men have looked good in their comebacks but haven't been difference-makers yet.

The answer, at least going into Monday's Game 2 of the season against Toledo, is energy.

In two exhibitions, the Gophers completed two routs from start to finish; compare that to a year ago, when they needed last-minute revamps to power past similar competition. Friday, they took it up a notch, drubbing American in the season opener by 36 points and showcasing an energy throughout that didn't slip, no matter how large the lead grew.

"We played really good as a team," junior guard Austin Hollins said. "Everybody came in and gave solid minutes and everybody played solid D."

The Gophers put full-court pressure from the start, harassing American into three turnovers before the Eagles even had any points on the board. The Gophers had 15 steals in all, including five each from Hollins and Joe Coleman.

On the other end, the Gophers got out in transition, making good on American's mistakes and jumping out to a 15-0 lead.

Stiff competition or not, the Gophers looked in many ways like the team they have long stated they want to be, an up-tempo group of athletes who press on the defensive end and run a quick, smooth offense.

Said coach Tubby Smith, "We like to play that way."

But here's the thing: They haven't, or at least they haven't consistently or for long stretches at a time.

Friday was different. They pressed until the end and maintained their energy.

"[Smith] preaches that every year, he tells us to go do it. But that first five minutes when you're going, running, you get a little tired," said senior Rodney Williams, who called the performance one of the Gophers' better games in that sense. "But it seemed like we had a little bit of juice and we were able to do that basically the whole game.

"We've been talking about that for a lot of years now, and we weren't able to really put a whole complete game together, but I think tonight we started out strong and we finished out strong."

So what changed?

Williams offered the theory that this team -- with a starting five that thrived at the end of last season -- is simply more comfortable with each other, and can more confidently make defensive shifts in games because they know teammates will adjust accordingly.

Whether the Gophers will be able to keep up the pace against better competition is a question yet to be answered, but after a successful showing of the strategy, they seem motivated to try -- perhaps again Monday.

"We've definitely been working on that. In practice, we wanted to get out there and force them to have to handle the ball full court the whole game, and I think it really worked out," Hollins said. "With the depth we've got this year, the full-court press is something we'll use a lot more."

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