Gophers trying to find defensive identity again

by Zach Eisendrath

A few short days after surrendering a season-high 91 points to Iowa, Minnesota men’s basketball is trying to recapture its defensive identity.

The Gophers don’t have much time to rediscover their defensive mentality, however, as a tilt with Michigan in Ann Arbor awaits them Saturday. Tip-off is slated for 7 p.m. at Crisler Arena.

After Wednesday’s 91-78 loss to the Hawkeyes, Minnesota interim coach Jim Molinari was as disgruntled as ever, calling out most of his players for a lack of effort and toughness defensively.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him as disappointed as I saw him (Wednesday),” junior center Spencer Tollackson said.

Molinari was so frustrated with his team that when Tollackson -making his first appearance since breaking his hand four weeks ago – fell hard to the ground in the first half, Molinari didn’t even notice.

“By that time, I think I was so frustrated defensively that I really didn’t know what happened at the offensive end,” Molinari said.

The only player “on the other end” Molinari was pleased with was sophomore swingman Brandon Smith. Molinari said Smith was the only one who made things difficult for Hawkeyes senior guard Adam Haluska, who scored a game-high 34 points.

“He’s changed us with his aggressiveness,” Molinari said of Smith. “I thought he was the one guy that made (Iowa) feel uncomfortable when they were on offense. I don’t think anyone else on our team did that.”

Smith’s contributions weren’t limited to just defense though. The 6-foot-6 205-pounder scored 10 points on 5-of-5 shooting in 21 minutes of work.

Because of Smith’s effort on both ends of the floor, Molinari said he will start Smith on Saturday, his first start since Dec. 9.

One reason Smith is starting to see more playing time is because of his drastic change in attitude, according to Molinari.

After being suspended in late December for violating team rules, Smith sat out four straight games and lost his spot in the rotation. And before Wednesday, Smith only played a combined 19 minutes in Minnesota’s previous three games.

But even while suspended, Smith continued to support his teammates from the sidelines, giving and taking advice from them on a daily basis and working hard in practice.

“My main goal was just to keep a positive attitude and keep going to finish out the Big Ten (season) strong,” Smith said.

But it will take more than the re-emergence of Smith for the Gophers (9-15 overall, 3-7 Big Ten) to finish off the conference season with success.

Minnesota, which is 1-6 on the road this year, first will need to learn how to win away from Williams Arena, something that won’t be easy to do against the Wolverines.

Michigan (16-8, 4-5) is still well in the mix for an NCAA Tournament birth and has protected its home court well thus far, going 14-2.

And while the Wolverines have lost their last four games, their record is deceiving because three of those losses came against top-25 teams, and the other came against the red-hot Hawkeyes.

Because Michigan has plenty left to play for, Molinari said he expects the Wolverines to be on top of their game.

“When you go on the road in the Big Ten, it’s always concerning,” he said. “We just need to make sure Michigan knows it’s a fight, and that’s what we have to establish early in the game.”