Big Ten season will tell the Gophers' tale

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 30, 2012 - 8:26 AM

The Gophers hope their 12-1 group is talented and mature enough to overcome the challenges of conference play.

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Tubby Smith might be surrounded by his most talented Gophers team yet, although the coach doesn’t like to say as much. But the Gophers’ 12-1 nonconference record includes quality victories over teams such as Stanford, Memphis and Florida State, all away from home.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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The popular thought, both nationally and within the Twin Cities, is that this version of the Gophers men's basketball team is Tubby Smith's most talented since he arrived at the University of Minnesota.

Ask the coach that question point blank, however, and he will skid around the sides.

It's his deepest team, he will say. Or his best-conditioned. His most athletic, while we're at it. Most mature. This squad has the best chemistry on the court, and the most attentiveness in the classroom, he will counter.

The truth is, as the No. 11 Gophers (12-1) head into Big Ten play -- starting Monday with No. 19 Michigan State coming to town -- they might be his favorite, though not many coaches would say that out loud.

While the Gophers have been here before under Smith, heading for conference play with two months of success in the rear view, there are signs that this season's team will bring lasting achievement, rather than a winter fizzle. Above all, Smith just seems happier coaching this bunch.

"This group has really made it a lot of fun coming to practice," he said. "They're sort of coaching themselves, and that's what good teams do. It's kind of like in the classroom when the teacher shows up and people are so excited about learning and being around one another. It makes it easier to teach and coach."

Certainly, everything feels easier for the Gophers right now. But the lingering past and the reality of how far there is yet to go keeps the coach from uttering that this is his most talented team. Because no one knows better than Smith that the real judgment comes after Christmas.

"When you get into conference play, everybody has all the goods on you," Smith said. "They've been evaluating and they know what to take away from you. ... We're probably the toughest conference in college basketball. So that alone means you're going to have to elevate your game because you're going to be stepping up against some of the best."

With six Big Ten teams ranked in the top 20 -- including three in front of the Gophers, who are at their highest Associated Press ranking in more than 15 years -- the competition at the top will be better than ever. At the same time, the conference's depth and balance from a year ago at the lower end seems to be evident once more.

"This league definitely has to be the best Big Ten in my era if you look at team 1 through at least 10," longtime Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "There aren't going to be any easy games in our league this year, for sure."

Conference play has given the Gophers fits the past two seasons after they cruised through nonconference play. Two years ago, they climbed to a No. 14 ranking after beating North Carolina and West Virginia in the Puerto Rico Tip-off. But after getting out to a 5-3 start in the Big Ten, they collapsed without point guards Al Nolen (injured) and Devoe Joseph (transferred), losing 10 of their last 11 games and failing to garner even an NIT berth. Then a year ago, after going 12-1 in nonconference play, the Gophers lost their first four Big Ten games and finished 6-12 in the conference.

It's not exactly a glowing track record, and with many of the same players who remember the struggles well, the past is tough to ignore, even with the national bandwagon swelling. When New Year's Eve comes around, the score resets.

"At that point, I think the rankings go out the window," Gophers junior Austin Hollins said. "We do have something to prove. We haven't always finished the way we would like to in the Big Ten, so this is our year to come out here -- everyone's healthy, we've been playing great basketball -- so this is our chance to go out there and show people what we can do."

The problem for the Gophers has been that what works in home games against weaker nonconference opponents doesn't necessarily transfer to Big Ten play, where the steady diet of improved competition exposes flaws.

Better equipped?

This season, the Gophers have thrived on stingy defense and up-tempo play. But against teams with more prolific offenses and those that flourish in dictating their own tempo, those strengths could be less prominent. Up-tempo teams become half-court teams by force. Pressuring teams start playing to survive. With the Gophers already holding on to a couple of critical weaknesses -- up-and-down shooting and a proclivity for turnovers -- the notion of adjusting is a little worrisome.

"If you look at over the years, what scored in November and December ... hasn't always proved to be what goes on in January, February and early March," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said, speaking of teams across the league. "If you try to judge Big Ten Conference by the nonconference [success], I don't think that's a good compaison."

Still, there are signs that this time around the Gophers are better equipped to deal with better competition. It's clear their defense is greatly advanced from a year ago. They have shown a killer instinct. And while the 2011-12 team had different players stepping up in different games, the balance in scoring for the 2012-13 group has been consistent all season.

Senior Rodney Williams has become the leader Minnesota needs. Andre Hollins is looking more like a floor general, and a dynamic scoring threat. Austin Hollins' defense and poise have been impressive and reliable, and forward Trevor Mbakwe -- who returned to the starting lineup in the final nonconference game -- is starting to look like his old self.

"We have great chemistry on this team, it's one of the best teams I've ever played on," Andre Hollins said. "Some teams, they don't even like each other, but every single one of us, we love each other -- we're like bros, we're like family. And it pays off huge on the court. We're around each other and it's fun."

How long will the fun continue? We will start to get some answers Monday.

  • GOPHERS MEN'S BASKETBALL

    Big Ten opener: 1 p.m. Monday vs.

    (19) Michigan St. • Williams Arena • TV: ESPN2 (1500-AM)

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