Talkin’ to Tubby

Tubby Smith spoke at Big Ten Media Day about his team’s improvements, its rotation, and star Trevor Mbakwe.

Charlie Armitz

CHICAGO — Minnesota’s men’s basketball team came in at No. 7 in the Big Ten preseason media poll released Wednesday morning.

You wouldn’t know it from talking to Gophers head coach Tubby Smith.

Smith appeared optimistic that his team would improve upon its Big Ten performance from a year ago, when it finished ninth after losing 10 of its last 11 games. He spoke to the media about a range of topics at Thursday’s Big Ten Media Day, frequently praising his players’ improvements during the offseason and preseason practices.

Some highlights:

– Smith said Trevor Mbakwe, who was named to the Preseason All-Big Ten First Team this morning, could be the “player of the year” if he avoids off-court distractions and improves his free-throw shooting and other fundamental aspects of the game.

– Smith said the team is deeper than last year, making special note of the team’s greater number of perimeter players. The Gophers add three guards to their 2011-12 rotation in freshman Andre Hollins, freshman Joe Coleman and junior college transfer Julian Welch. They also add redshirt freshman Oto Osenieks, a 6-foot-8 sharpshooter who could play either small forward or power forward.

– Smith reiterated that his team is “the best shooting group we’ve had at Minnesota.”

– Smith noted that Coleman has been the team’s leading scorer in practice. He is also the team’s leading 3-point shooter, although Smith said “that’s not his game.”

– Smith called Coleman “one of the most consistent freshmen I’ve ever had.”

– Smith said his starting shooting guard will probably be Austin Hollins, who started five games last year and averaged 4.5 points and a team-best 1.2 steals per game. “Plus he’s knocking down the open shot,” Smith said. “He’s very capable of doing that.” But Smith added that Coleman is probably playing the best of anyone at that position right now.

– Smith said he might play two of his three point guard candidates together in the backcourt if Hollins or Coleman shift to small forward. “We have a lot more exchangable parts,” Smith said of this year’s team.

– Smith emphasized that his three point guard candidates — Andre Hollins, Welch, and sophomore Maverick Ahanmisi — each have unique strengths, and that they will all play a lot in 2011-12. “When they’re not at the point, they’re three of the best 3-point shooters we have,” Smith said.

– Ahanmisi has the most experience of the three, but Hollins is the best offensive player and Welch is the best defender. “If I could mesh them all into one, we’d have a hell of a point guard,” he said, laughing.

– Smith called his point guard dilemma “a good problem to have,” referencing the team’s lack of options at point guard last season.

– In hindsight, Smith said he would have started Ahanmisi last year at point guard rather than Blake Hoffarber when Al Nolen broke his foot and Devoe Joseph transferred to Oregon.

– Forward/center Mo Walker, who tore his posterior cruciate ligament last December and is still recovering from surgery, may redshirt the 2011-12 season, according to Smith. “Most guys it takes at least a full year to even come close to overcoming [the injury],” Smith said. “You don’t want to bring him back for just half a year.”

– Smith said the team will look to push the pace in 2011-12. “We’re going to play faster than we’ve ever played. We’ve got the people that can play that up-tempo style properly.”

– Smith said he will use a 10- to-12-man rotation throughout the season and in Big Ten play. Against Big Ten opponents last season, the Gophers usually played eight or nine men.