Simplicity of spacing, screening pays off for U

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 3, 2013 - 12:58 PM

The Gophers' focus on offensive fundamentals their last time out enabled them to end their slide.

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Trevor Mbakwe went to the basket in the Gophers' victory Tuesday over Nebraska.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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There's no sense putting a new paint job on a car that won't start.

So when a team is going through a slump, it's not the fancy changes, but rather a re-tooling of the basics that can get things back on the right track.

As the No. 23 Gophers head into Sunday's game against Iowa -- fresh off a victory over Nebraska that ended a four-game losing streak -- they continued to strip down their approach, working to first improve on fundamentals before developing any new complicated schemes.

Funny thing is, in employing the rudimentary system Tuesday against the Cornhuskers, the Gophers looked better and smoother than they had in a long time.

"It's just the simple things," guard Andre Hollins said. "Sometimes you have to change it up. We weren't executing our offense well on that four-game losing streak; we weren't doing the things we need to do to win. So it was just a little changeup."

Basically, the Gophers took out all the frills and went to a simple playbook, putting the focus on spreading the floor and screening constantly.

That wrinkle is still a work in progress, with setting that many screens -- guards for big men and big men for guards -- not necessarily natural for this group. Hollins was called for a couple of illegal screens in Tuesday's 84-65 victory, but coach Tubby Smith pointed out that will happen considering the increase in screen attempts.

But the result was a more active half-court offense that enabled players to get open more easily and expose holes in the admittedly soft Huskers defense.

"Sometimes we get stagnant in our offense, we just stand," Hollins said. "So when we're spreading the floor, we get a lot of movement. ...

"When you have spacing, it's putting your man on an island, it's hard to guard. It's hard to guard Division I athletes 1-on-1 in any circumstances, so it's just kind of putting more pressure on the defense."

The spacing also enabled Rodney Williams to play out on the wing more and utilize his athleticism to get to the basket and break out of his own slump.

"When the floor is more spaced, I think it opens up a lot of options for you, no matter who it is," Williams said. "That's why I think the guards were doing such a great job of penetrating and finding me when I was cutting to the rim."

But perhaps most importantly for the Gophers, the disentangled offense kept the pressure off Hollins, meaning he could "play freestyle," as he described it, and allowing teammates to find themselves in fewer situations where they turned the ball over.

As such, the Gophers were able to score more often, control tempo and ease into their press, which they used effectively for nearly the entire game.

"We limited our turnovers, we scored better, and therefore we were able to get into our press," Smith said.

Nebraska, sitting near the Big Ten basement, isn't necessarily an indication of how the Gophers' adjustments will work throughout the rest of the league schedule. But it does show that Smith is willing to tinker -- just as he has done with his substitution pattern recently -- in order to get a talented team back on its feet.

Sometimes, the tiniest tweaks make all the difference.

"It's a very simple game. We don't want to complicate it," Smith said. "There's always a wrinkle you're trying to iron out or improve on -- you're trying to improve all the time, and just to simplify things."

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