Smith to face Army in first official game

Minnesota finished the preseason undefeated and looks to keep momentum.

Zach Eisendrath

Now the Tubby Smith era really begins.

After a month full of practices and two exhibition games, the Minnesota men’s basketball team begins its 2007-08 campaign on Saturday when the Gophers host Army at Williams Arena. Tipoff is slated for 2 p.m.

Minnesota enters regular season play with encouraging play on the court and trying occurrences off it.

Junior forward Brandon Smith left the program. Another junior forward, Jamal Abu-Shamala, cut his shooting hand and missed the Minnesota State exhibition.

Meanwhile, senior guard Lawrence McKenzie missed the Southwest Minnesota State contest because of an aggravated groin injury from practice.

Nonetheless, Minnesota went a perfect 2-0 this preseason – something it couldn’t say last year.

And although injuries are never wished upon anyone, coach Tubby Smith and his staff might have found out more about their team with two projected starters each sitting out one game.

After pouring in a game-high 24 points in the Gophers 94-68 win over the Mavericks to start the preseason, it was reasonable to wonder who would pick up the scoring lost without McKenzie on Tuesday.

Freshman point guard Al Nolen and sophomore swingman Lawrence Westbrook definitively answered that question.

The two underclassmen shot around for three hours on Monday, and that extra work translated to big results against the Mustangs.

Nolen was a perfect 6-for-6 and finished with a team-high 24 points.

“When your point guard makes shots, that opens things up for you,” Smith said. “He’s really mature. I’ve been impressed with the way he’s played.”

Westbrook, who had trouble finding the court in interim coach Jim Molinari’s half-court offense last season, continues to shine in Smith’s up-tempo scheme. He added 17 points on 7 of 12 shooting Tuesday.

Senior center Spencer Tollackson said it was encouraging to see Nolen and Westbrook play so well this preseason, because they will likely both be counted on to produce during the regular season.

“It’s good to get them going early on in the year like this, because both of them will play very iatrical roles for this team this year,” he said.

Defensively, the Gophers are starting to understand Smith’s aggressive ball-line defense. They held Minnesota State to 37 percent shooting and held the Mustangs to just 14.3 percent shooting in the second half Tuesday.

Smith’s main concern is that his team might be playing too aggressively in the system. Minnesota had four players with four fouls on Tuesday.

“We want to be aggressive but we want to play without fouling,” he said. “That’s something we have to do.”