Lineup shakeup possible in Evanston

Minnesota’s big starting lineup is just 2-5.

Josh Katzenstein

With the Gophers menâÄôs basketball teamâÄôs season stumbling toward a disappointing finish, head coach Tubby Smith is considering making a change to the starting lineup.

Freshman Maverick Ahanmisi has been practicing as the starting point guard, and although Smith said after TuesdayâÄôs practice that he didnâÄôt know what changes he could make with the depleted squad, he didnâÄôt rule out Ahanmisi starting WednesdayâÄôs game at Northwestern.

A reason for the shakeup is that the latest starting five âÄî consisting of three players 6-foot-8-inches or taller âÄî is 2-5.

Forward Trevor Mbakwe said the team could use an extra ball handler, partly because the Gophers (17-11, 6-10 Big Ten) have failed to take advantage of the size advantage with all three big men on the floor.

âÄúTeams are able to collapse the paint a lot more with Blake [Hoffarber] being our only real outside threat,âÄù Mbakwe said.

Even when Minnesota has dominated the paint early, the team has veered off course.

âÄúWhen we get the lead we start settling for jump shots and quit attacking the basket,âÄù said junior center Colton Iverson, who hasnâÄôt eclipsed 8 points in any of the last eight games. âÄúWe just need to play a full game.âÄù

The bigger lineup has also forced the Gophers to play mostly in a 2-3 zone since senior point guard Al Nolen went down with a broken foot Jan. 22.

Although Minnesota has improved its 3-point shooting defense since Big Ten play began (34.7 percent from 36.7 percent), the Gophers saw Michigan hit its first six treys and go 12-for-28 from deep during SaturdayâÄôs 70-63 loss, MinnesotaâÄôs seventh defeat in eight games.

âÄúWeâÄôve got to pressure the ball more on defense,âÄù Iverson said.

The Gophers first used the big lineup against Northwestern in an 81-70 win Jan. 26 at Williams Arena. The Wildcats were 12-for-39 (31.7 percent) on 3s in that game, but Minnesota canâÄôt count on a repeat performance from the Big TenâÄôs third-best 3-point shooting team.

Last monthâÄôs victory over Northwestern also doesnâÄôt give the Gophers much added confidence for todayâÄôs game, especially after SaturdayâÄôs loss to the Wolverines.

âÄúWe felt we beat Michigan pretty handily at their place, too, and they came in and kind of gave it to us,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄúIt makes us know that we have to work even harder, because no team wants to get swept, especially at their place.âÄù

The Gophers certainly need a win today to keep any dreams of an NCAA tournament at-large berth alive. The recent slide has pushed them to eighth in the Big Ten standings and secured a sub-.500 conference record for the first time in three seasons.

âÄúYou donâÄôt just give up,âÄù Smith said, adding that he never discusses the possibility of postseason play with the team. âÄúMy concern is, âÄòWhatâÄôs the next best thing? How do we get better today?âÄôâÄù

Even if the Gophers win their final two games during the regular season, they likely need to have an impressive showing at the Big Ten Tournament to make the Big Dance. Last season they advanced to the championship game, and although three starters from that squad (Lawrence Westbrook, Damian Johnson and Devoe Joseph) are gone, Iverson thinks a run isnâÄôt out of the question.

âÄúWeâÄôve got the talent,âÄù he said. âÄúWe havenâÄôt been playing our best, but I think weâÄôre still capable of doing it.âÄù