Smith has a method to his nonconference schedule

Tubby Smith wonâÄôt try to spin it. The Gophers have a pretty easy nonconference schedule. They open their regular season tonight against Division II Concordia-St. Paul, play Bowling Green on Saturday and Georgia State on Sunday. They started the season with exhibitions against St. Cloud State and Northern State. âÄúWe try to build our schedule and program that way,âÄù Smith, in his second year as head coach, said before the season. âÄúThereâÄôs a certain way you build your program. You donâÄôt throw them under the bus or into the fire, you bring them along so they can learn and grow.âÄù Five of the teamâÄôs 13 players are new this year. Although they were a top-25 recruiting class, they didnâÄôt look ready for top-tier teams in the exhibition games, where they combined for 36 turnovers and sweated out an eight point victory against St. Cloud State. But Smith said heâÄôs happy with the progress of the five newcomers âÄî three freshmen and two junior college transfers âÄî who have continued to get big minutes. âÄúThe key to new players, and we knew we were going to have quite a few of them, is to bring them along the right way,âÄù Smith said. âÄúI thought that was the key to our success last year.âÄù With a similarly easy nonconference schedule last season, the Gophers opened the season 10-1, and ended up going a much-better-than-expected 8-10 in the Big Ten. They will likely be favorites in all but two of their 12 nonconference games. âÄúIt really just helps develop a winning mentality and attitude, which we needed, especially considering the year they had before that,âÄù Smith said. The teamâÄôs only marquee nonconference game comes Dec. 20 against preseason-No. 3 Louisville at a neutral site in Glendale, Ariz. They also have a challenge in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge against Virginia, who many expect to make the NCAA tournament despite finishing third-to-last in the conference last season. âÄúWe want to build a little momentum here in these type of games, so we can bring that to games like Louisville and the Big Ten season,âÄù sophomore guard Blake Hoffarber said. Even if he wanted to, Smith said, it wouldâÄôve been tough to attract top talent to this weekendâÄôs tournament. Teams with hopes of making the NCAA tournament typically shy away from three-game weekend tournaments unless the tournament is in a place like Hawaii or Puerto Rico. The Gophers wonâÄôt play back-to-back games again this year, let alone three in a row, which players say adds a new dynamic. âÄúIt takes me back to AAU days,âÄù junior guard Lawrence Westbrook said. âÄúWeâÄôre going to have to get our rest and go to bed early. I like it. I wish we did it more often. ItâÄôs more like the NBA, with games a couple days in a row.âÄù Williams and Johnson out Senior center Jonathan Williams and junior forward Damian Johnson will both take the weekend off, Smith said. Johnson is healing a broken non-shooting hand, and could be out until early December. Williams is out with a groin injury, but the team is afraid it may be a hernia. He will undergo an MRI sometime this weekend to find out, Smith said.