Gophers get shot at Duke, other tough teams at Bahamas tourney

Despite a turnovers problem, Minnesota has looked solid through 4 games.

Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe successfully shoots in a free throw at the game against American University onNov. 9, 2012 at Williams Arena.

Image by Ichigo Takikawa

Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe successfully shoots in a free throw at the game against American University onNov. 9, 2012 at Williams Arena.

by Andrew Krammer

After months of listening to naysayers and fighting controversy, head men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith has a chance to put Gophers basketball on the map on Thanksgiving Day.

Minnesota (4-0) beat up on cupcake opponents at home to start the season. This week, it travels to the Bahamas to play three tougher opponents — including No. 5 Duke — in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.

The Gophers and Blue Devils will meet Thursday in the tournament’s opening round.

“We’re just going to come out and play how we play ball and not worry about the name on their jersey,” senior Rodney Williams said of playing Duke.

The Gophers will compete in a tournament field with No. 2 Louisville, No. 5 Duke, No. 13 Missouri, No. 19 Memphis and tough unranked schools like Virginia Commonwealth.

Pending its result against Duke, Minnesota will play Memphis or VCU in the next round.

Smith has called the Battle 4 Atlantis the “toughest tournament in college basketball” among nonconference brackets this fall.

“You’re going to run into more talented teams, and Duke is one of the most talented teams year in and year out,” Smith said.

The Gophers’ sixth-year coach said Duke is a great measuring stick for his players.

The Blue Devils boast three potential NBA players in seniors Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly.

“I’ve played against some of those guys in camps and always did a good job of holding my own,” senior Trevor Mbakwe said. “I’m just looking forward to seeing where I’m at individually.”

Mbakwe played a season-high 27 minutes in Sunday’s 72-57 victory over Richmond. The sixth-year senior was one-point short of his 24th career double-double with nine points and 12 rebounds.

However, Smith said he’ll likely stick with the same starters this week, leaving Mbakwe on the bench.

“He won’t be [starting],” Smith said. “I don’t see a reason why he would. We have a pretty good team — the chemistry is there.”

Sophomores Elliott Eliason, Joe Coleman and Andre Hollins, junior Austin Hollins and senior Rodney Williams are Smith’s likely starters. But Smith said Mbakwe will get more minutes as he brings him along slowly.

Mbakwe said his knee is about “90 percent,” and it only feels stiff after taking his brace off after games.

“During the game I don’t focus on it,” Mbakwe said.

Smith said he’s going to switch up his offense for Thursday after it committed a season-high 19 turnovers against Richmond on Sunday.

Williams said the offense is one the team ran a lot last year, but “Duke hasn’t seen it yet.”

Smith said his post players were holding onto the ball too long, and they’re not natural ball handlers.

Post players committed 11 of Minnesota’s 19 turnovers Sunday. But the entire team has struggled to take care of the basketball all season.

The Gophers have averaged 18 assists and 16 turnovers per game this season against lesser competition.

Mbakwe said the turnovers are simply mental errors — a result of the team rushing itself or playing too complacently.

“I don’t think the opponent has done anything,” Mbakwe said. “We’re beating ourselves.”

Mbakwe said he views turnovers as a key to recording a signature win over Duke.

“If we cut down on turnovers, which have been killing us lately,” he said, “I think we should have a good chance of winning.”