Gophers look to keep improving under Smith

Minnesota has 42 wins in two seasons under Tubby Smith.

Marco LaNave

Two years ago, the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team had a new coach and everyone was learning the philosophy and strategies of Tubby Smith, who entered with a national title and 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances on his résumé. Now the expectations are the highest they have been in three years for Smith and the No. 25 Gophers, who open the season on Friday against Tennessee Tech at Williams Arena. Nine players have at least one year of experience with SmithâÄôs principles of solid defense and easy baskets in transition. That familiarity has made it easier for players and coaches alike. âÄúThis year has been the smoothest weâÄôve ever had practice going,âÄù senior forward Damian Johnson said. âÄúWe rarely have to stop anything, all the guys know what to do and we donâÄôt have to worry about the new guys lagging behind because weâÄôve got so many [veterans] at the front of the line that they can just blend right in.âÄù Players said before the season that they were more familiar with their teammates from playing together and against each other in high school and during the summer. They said they started developing chemistry from open-gym workouts and by hanging out off the court before regular practice began less than four weeks ago. âÄúItâÄôs just like a family âÄî people look out for one another and teach one another,âÄù Smith said. âÄúItâÄôs made it a lot easier to implement our system because guys are helping one another.âÄù While the Gophers couldnâÄôt sustain SmithâÄôs run of NCAA Tournament appearances, they finished 20-14 in his first season, one year after a 9-22 campaign under Dan Monson . Last year, the Gophers reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005, but lost in the first round to Texas. The Gophers started the season 16-1 and reached as high as No. 18 in the Associated Press Poll, but struggled down the stretch to finish 22-11 (9-9 Big Ten). Junior point guard Al Nolen said the team got worn down toward the end of the Big Ten season, but that experience will help the Gophers this season. âÄúWe really didnâÄôt know what to expect at all,âÄù Nolen said. âÄúWe were a young team, so some of the games we let slip away from usâĦ With a year of experience under our belt, weâÄôll be a lot better.âÄù Every major contributor from last yearâÄôs team returns for Minnesota, which is ranked in the preseason AP poll for the first time in seven years. The Gophers have already tied a program record with 42 wins in back-to-back seasons, and they are seeking to move past the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years (a Final Four appearance in 1997 was vacated due to NCAA violations). âÄúEverybody seems a little more driven, more hungry to get back to [the tournament] and even further,âÄù sophomore forward and center Ralph Sampson III said. âÄúPeople will see a whole different energy around the team, a whole different persona.âÄù On-court leadership Last year, Gophers co-captains Jamal Abu-Shamala and Jonathan Williams combined to average just more than 18 minutes and less than 5 points per game. This yearâÄôs co-captains are Johnson, a Big Ten All-Defensive Team selection after his 60-block (led team), 58-steal (second on team) junior campaign, and senior guard Lawrence Westbrook, an All-Big Ten honorable mention after leading the Gophers in scoring in 14 games last season. Players expressed confidence before the season that Westbrook and Johnson, the only current players who were at Minnesota before Smith, will be good leaders for the team. Smith said Johnson and Westbrook have set an example with their hard work. âÄúThatâÄôs always a challenge: to make sure that youâÄôre getting internal leadership from within the team,âÄù Smith said before the season. âÄúTheyâÄôve set the standard âĦ they understand how hard theyâÄôve had to work, and theyâÄôve paid their dues. I think theyâÄôve been a big help in the chemistry aspect of it.âÄù Smith said Westbrook and Johnson, although solidified as starters last year, know they will still be competing with talented teammates. The Gophers added the 24th-ranked recruiting class, according to Rivals.com, but only two members will be on the court to start the season. Off-court issues Entering the season, the situation of junior-college transfer forward Trevor Mbakwe was well-documented. He faces an aggravated-battery felony charge in Miami-Dade County (Fla.) surrounding an incident in April. His trial is scheduled for Dec. 14, and he will not be allowed to play until his case is resolved, Athletics Director Joel Maturi announced last week. On Nov. 3, Smith announced the indefinite suspensions of senior guard Devron Bostick and freshman forward Royce White, who was cited for misdemeanor theft and assault after a shoplifting incident at the Mall of America on Oct. 13, according to a Bloomington police report . White is also a possible suspect in an on-campus theft, according to an athletics department spokesman. While Smith has said that Sampson and sophomore forward and center Colton Iverson have improved, Mbakwe and White, both 6-foot-8 and more than 240 pounds entering the season, were expected to help Minnesota against elite teams inside. The Gophers were second in the Big Ten in rebounding margin in conference games, but they were decimated on the boards in three losses to conference regular-season champion and national runner-up Michigan State. They were also heavily out-rebounded in their first-round loss to Texas. The Big Ten season starts on Dec. 29 against Penn State, but the Gophers will face preseason-No. 11 Butler in Anaheim, Calif., at the 76 Classic in two weeks. The Gophers have also added freshman forward Rodney Williams Jr. and freshman guard Justin Cobbs. Smith has lauded the highâÄîflying Williams for his eagerness to learn, and he said that this yearâÄôs team is one of the most coachable groups he has had. âÄúI need to coach âÄòem up a little bit more off the court, but theyâÄôre as coachable as any group on the court,âÄù Smith said last weekend.