The Gophers men's basketball team has played nine games and had five different leading scorers.

Four starters -- Rodney Williams, Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman -- average double figures in scoring. Trevor Mbakwe's 8.4-point scoring average almost assuredly will climb to double digits once he moves into the starting lineup and/or assumes a more significant role in his return from major knee surgery.

Thus, it's entirely realistic to think the Gophers can field a lineup that consists of five players who average double figures in scoring, which hasn't happened in this program since the 1965-66 season.

"This is definitely the most balanced team that we've had since I've been here," said Williams, a senior forward who leads the team at 14.1 points per game. "You never know who it's going to be on any given night."

That revelation is one of the more promising developments in their strong start to this season. At 8-1 and ranked 14th nationally this week, the Gophers aren't reliant on one or even two primary scorers to shoulder the offensive load. They're getting consistent contributions from a number of guys -- their top four scorers average between 10 and 15 points.

The Gophers don't necessarily have a designated "best" offensive player or go-to scorer. Theirs is a shared responsibility that seemingly rotates on a game-by-game basis. That could change as the season unfolds, and they'll certainly need someone to step up and display a willingness to take clutch shots with a game on the line.

But their offensive balance and share-the-ball unselfishness is enjoyable to watch and should make them more difficult to defend because their scoring source is not always predictable.

"We don't have just one guy who can score," Coleman said. "We have different leading scorers every game."

In that vein, we conducted a poll of the Gophers' top 10 players to see who they think will lead the team in scoring at season's end. Williams was the runaway winner, although Andre Hollins and Mbakwe also received votes.

"Rodney because he's the most versatile player," backup forward Maurice Walker said. "He can score inside or out, take people off the dribble."

The Gophers have a nice blend of talent and skill sets. And they genuinely seem to appreciate not being forced to rely on one player to score 25 points every game in order for them to succeed. They don't care who scores, which creates better ball movement and more offensive flow. They rank fifth in the Big Ten in scoring (75.9 points per game) and third in assists (16.3).

"It takes pressure off everybody as a team," Andre Hollins said.

Of course, it's only early December and they have to show they can function effectively against better competition. The Big Ten looks full of true heavyweights this season, so we'll find out if the Gophers can sustain what they've started, particularly in conference play when games become tighter and more physical and teams are forced to grind out possessions in the halfcourt.

That's not a been a strength of Gophers teams under Tubby Smith. His offense has looked laborious and stagnant at times, to the point that some games eroded into the visual equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard. Just painful to watch.

That's partly been a result of personnel deficiencies. But this team appears capable of producing better ball movement in the halfcourt and no reason is more important than Andre Hollins' development at point guard. The sophomore looks in complete control of his game and the entire offense. He used his late-season flourish as a springboard and, so far, he's demonstrated a nice feel for when to push the pace and when to pull back.

"It's just having that year experience," he said.

That applies for the entire team. The roster returned mostly intact, and the players just look more comfortable together. They look more in sync on offense.

"It helps when you're in the flow of things," Austin Hollins said. "Everyone knows each other. We've been around each other."

They also don't care who scores the most points on any given night because chances are, someone else will fill that role the next game. They embrace that balanced approach, which is as encouraging as anything they've done to this point.

Chip Scoggins •