Gophers to turn up tempo

Minnesota will rely on a quick but small lineup to score this year on the court.

Ben Gotz

The Gophers lost a lot of size in the offseason, with All-Big Ten frontcourt players Amanda Zahui B. and Shae Kelley both leaving for the WNBA.
But Minnesota will also get an All-Big Ten player back with guard Rachel Banham returning from a knee injury, allowing the team to switch its focus from size to speed on offense.
“It changes the dynamics of our team greatly,” head coach Marlene Stollings said. “Towards the end of last year, everything was going through Amanda. That’ll transition back to Rachel, and we’ll be a lot more guard dominated this year, but we’re certainly excited to have Rachel back.”
Banham, the program’s second leading all-time scorer, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee in a game against North Dakota  on Dec. 10, 2014, but the Gophers still rallied to make the NCAA tournament last year for the first time since 2009.
Banham said she’s able to do everything in practice again, though her coaches are trying to limit the eager redshirt senior and make sure she’s not overworking herself.
In a recent practice, Banham kept trying to sneak back into a drill and associate head coach Nikita Lowry Dawkins stopped the guard and made Banham stand next to her. 
“It’s really hard for me to slow down with it but when I’m in — I’m going 100 percent, and when I’m out, I take it a little easy,” Banham said.
When Banham is healthy again, she’ll become the main scoring threat for a team that is heavy on guards but light at the bigger positions.
The Gophers mainly rolled with a three-guard lineup towards the end of last season with Banham out, utilizing senior Shayne Mullaney, sophomore Carlie Wagner and senior Mikayla Bailey.
Now with Banham back in the fold, the team may play with four guards on the court and a center at times.
Banham may also be asked to help out in the front court more, and may even see some time at power forward.
“We’ll be more guard-centered, quicker up and down,” Stollings said. “We’ll adjust to our strengths in that area, and we’ll certainly be faster up and down.”
Playing fast and pushing the pace on the court are two things Stolling wants to do as part of her offense, which is nicknamed “Fury.”
It was a new style of play for the Gophers last year, but entering Stollings’ second season, Mullaney said she’s more comfortable directing the attack at point guard.
“Having coach [Stollings] last year was definitely a lot of newness and learning, and it definitely feels good this year having a year under my belt playing for her and knowing what she expects and what she wants from us each individually,” Mullaney said.
The team is still figuring out its backcourt depth, as Stollings said the door is still wide open at the center position right now.
The team has three newcomers at center, and the lone returner at the position, Josie Buckingham, played only 13 minutes last year.
Last year, the Gophers biggest strength was at center for most of the season, but this year the offense will run through the backcourt again.
“We’re going to be really up-tempo this year, very fast-paced, pushing the ball,” Wagner said. “We don’t have a lot of height inside, but that’s OK. … We’re going to be very fast this year.”