Say what you will about this Gophers teams’ depth that coach Tubby Smith likes to herald.

Smith plays a deep bench, 11 guys in total, and will rarely bench a guy completely in any game, slump or not. This drives a lot of fans crazy, to be sure, and understandably so.

But in some cases it also allows role players to really develop and become legitimate boosts for the starters.

Take for example two reserves that have truly shined early – both of whom have improved significantly from a year ago:

1) Andre Ingram: In his senior season, the forward has, simply put, played HARD so far. There have been several occasions in which Rodney Williams/Trevor Mbakwe/ Elliott Eliason have gotten into foul trouble, and Ingram has aptly stepped in to take charges, grab his rebounds and bang around under the basket. He did it impressively in the win over Memphis, keeping the Gophers’ momentum with Williams and Mbakwe on the bench. It’s a far cry from a year ago, when he looked timid and lost a lot of times. Nothing he’s doing is flashy, but he’s played a key role for the team so far.

“Andre Ingram, he’s a real hard worker,” teammate Rodney Williams said. “No matter what’s going on – you know you can put him on the floor and he’s going to work hard for you the whole time.”

2) Maverick Ahanmisi: With Julian Welch slumping, Ahanmisi has become the go-to backup at point (even if Welch is the only other reserve besides Mbakwe that’s receiving more minutes than Ahanmisi) and has done a really solid job in that role. He’s hit key shots without forcing (he’s tied for the third-best shooting percentage on the team with 56.2), has shown some good foresight with plays and made some good passes. Early on, he’s averaging 5.4 points a game—double from a season ago, and scored 10 against Duke on Thanksgiving.

“My job is to keep the bench intense and when I come into the game, just bring intensity,” Ahanmisi said. “Everybody had confidence in me so it really helped a lot.”

Smith has long employed mass substitutions and used a very deep bench, and if it’s done right, the starters stay energized and the team gets better as a whole, as the Gophers have seen a couple hints of so far this season.

Of course, it has its flaws too: it allows him to stick with struggling players for too long and takes away minutes from starters, who have more trouble getting into a groove.

“Guys are getting rest, we’re trying to get them so they’re fresh, so they’re still active, but it’s good to have a bench,” Smith said.“That was our problem last year, we had a very short bench. And especially the way we play. We want to get out and attack and run and press and you have to have other players that can contribute.”

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