At the beginning of the season, one of the Gophers’ biggest question marks was their backcourt.

The frontcourt was full of veterans. Trevor Mbakwe was the glue holding the team together and behind him were the next two most experienced guys on the team. You didn’t necessarily know what you were going to get out Ralph Sampson and Rodney Williams every game, but … you at least knew who they were.

The backcourt – with a handful of guards, all of whom were sophomores, freshman or new to the team – was a complete wild card.

But with the Big Ten portion of the schedule less than two weeks away, the backcourt has become a strength of a Gophers team that has seen Sampson struggle with an ankle injury and Mbakwe’s season end with a torn ACL.  With the front court looking substantially thinner, the guards – while showing flaws and immaturity – have often been the ones to step up to bolster this team.

It’s a phenomenon that’s happened so quickly and seamlessly, coach Tubby Smith seemed to get the epiphany in Tuesday’s postgame, shortly after being asked the question.

“Our  backcourt is starting to get better, and adding Julian to our backcourt and Chip playing the way he’s playing and Joe coming along and those guys that were freshmen are now stronger and just better,” he said.

“And I think that’s going to be – you might have a point, our strength probably is in our backcourt at this point in time.”

Each of them has a specific role:

  • Julian Welch has become one of the team’s best leaders and has paced the team with his defensive aggressiveness.
  • Andre Hollins is a solid part of the Gophers future, is learning aptly on the job and is making good decisions.
  • Austin Hollins is a shooter – among the best the Gophers have – and has shown an ability to make big shots at the right time.
  • Chip Armelin is instant offense off the bench.
  • Maverick Ahanmisi is a capable option at point guard who now has a major role running the second team.
  • Joe Coleman is becoming a legitimate scorer and pacing the bench squad.

In the new three-guard offense, they’ve been able to click into new roles quickly and better utilize their personal strengths. While turnovers are still a significant issue, the ball is moving better around the perimeter, more guys are involved in plays and the team is looking more athletic and more high-octane than they have all year.

The question is if they can continue to roll against the bigger, tougher teams of the Big Ten. They’ve had five games without Mbakwe (and will have six before conference play) to adjust and get the kinks out – now how will they react to tougher competition?

Only time will tell if the question mark has truly become an exclamation point.

“I think we felt that we needed to step up a little bit because we were without our main guys in the post,” Austin Hollins said. “We did have Elliott that stepped up and Rodney playing the four, he stepped up. So I think it was just a team thing. As a team we knew we needed to step up because some guys were out, and that’s what we did.”