Tuesday was meant to be a night of experimentation for the Gophers men's basketball team -- an exhibition for them to try different things and test their new parts. Instead, they had to make sure they actually won the game.
It was never meant to be a contest, but Minnesota allowed Division II Bemidji State to linger within single digits before finally securing the 71-58 victory before 10,653 at Williams Arena. While Trevor Mbakwe proved to be everything forecasted, with a team-high 17 points and 11 rebounds, almost everything else appeared to need some serious tinkering.
"Overall, there's a lot of things we need to work on," said coach Tubby Smith, who seemed to take away a mixed bag of results from his first in-game view of a greatly changed squad.
The team showed sparks of aggressive intensity, two freshman debuts were encouraging and Mbakwe was the player he is supposed to be.
With Minnesota nursing a 14-12 lead, the senior power forward made a resounding statement with three dunks in five possessions to help reignite his teammates and get the Gophers back on track.
But getting that track to lead somewhere other than an extension of last year's disappointing finish will require more than just solid play by Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III (15 points) and sporadic contributions elsewhere.
Minnesota's second unit struggled to score and allowed Bemidji State back in the game after an 8-0 start that featured a dunk from Rodney Williams and a 15-footer by Mbakwe.
Asked if he was disappointed with the second team for allowing the Beavers to keep it close, Smith inferred the whole package needed work.
"They kept it close all game," he said "It wasn't just the second group, I thought they came pretty close with the first group, too.
"They looked a little nervous. That group just didn't play well together. They didn't shoot it well. They didn't do a lot of things well."
The Gophers struggled from the free-throw line -- going 12-for-19 -- and a team Smith has called "the best shooting group" he's had managed only one three-pointer out of seven tries, while laboring to guard against the flurry of long shots from Beavers shooters including David Berthene (a game-high 21 points, including five threes).
Play from the Gophers' point guards was promising, but spotty. Freshman Andre Hollins -- who got the start after junior college transfer Julian Welch turned his ankle during practice earlier in the week -- had eight assists, including six through the first half, and showed glimpses of potential but missed shots. Maverick Ahanmisi launched wild passes at times. The home team had 10 first-half turnovers.
"I think it starts on defense," said Mbakwe, who went 8-for-9 from the field. "I think we just got caught out of position a couple of times and it was probably mental. And just playing harder -- I know coach has said that to us. We didn't play as hard and we lacked intensity at times in the game. I think when we picked it up, we were able to extend our lead a little bit, but we kept them in the game."