As Mbakwe and Walker return, perimeter shooting becomes key

Minnesota has a healthy mix of big men and shooters on its deep roster this season.

Minnesota guard Julian Welch dribbles during a game against Illinois on Jan. 28 at Williams Arena.

Erin Westover, Daily File Photo

Minnesota guard Julian Welch dribbles during a game against Illinois on Jan. 28 at Williams Arena.

Andrew Krammer

Minnesota guard Julian Welch walked to the bench of Williams Arena smiling ear to ear with the crowd roaring after he won the three-point shootout over teammate Andre Hollins at the Gophers’ All-Star Friday night competition.

The Minnesota men’s basketball program kicked off its season the way it usually does — all smiles and cheers — during the annual event at the Barn.

But head coach Tubby Smith has often seen his team’s preseason hype dissolve into disappointment during his six-year tenure at Minnesota.

A 12-1 record out of the gate last year and a 16-4 mark in 2010 quenched fans’ expectations. But each year, they watched the team finish 6-12 in the Big Ten.

This year, anything short of an NCAA tournament berth — and possibly even more than that — is likely a failure.

“I expected us to compete for a Big Ten championship last year when we were 12-1,” Smith said. “But it’s tough when you don’t have your full complement of players.”

Conquering a nonconference schedule has proven easy for the Gophers, but injuries to Minnesota’s frontcourt have plagued the team’s meaningful side of the slate.

Losing close conference games became a habit for Smith’s 2011-12 squad, as it lacked a go-to guy in the post for easy buckets down the stretch.

Minnesota returns star forward 6-foot-8-inch, 245-pound Trevor Mbakwe) this season from an ACL tear and sophomore forward 6-foot-10-inch, 289-pound Mo Walker from a knee injury he suffered in December 2010. Both said their knees were “100 percent” on Friday.

“We’ll be playing more inside-out basketball with those guys back,” junior shooting guard Austin Hollins said.

Shooting lanes could bust wide open for Minnesota’s guards as opponents try and cover — maybe even double team — the two big men in the paint.

“If they’re not going to double, [Mbakwe and Walker] will score, so they have to [double],” Welch said. “If they do double, they kick it out to us.”

The Gophers sustained some success during their Big Ten tournament victory and National Invitational Tournament run last spring by adopting a smaller lineup and running the floor. They finished second in the NIT.

But size dominates the Big Ten, and the Gophers know playing small and fast won’t equate to Big Ten victories.

“We didn’t have that real Jared Sullinger-type body last year,” Smith said.

Welch and Austin Hollins said Minnesota plans to “slow down” its offense this season and play half-court basketball now that it has Mbakwe and Walker inside.

Welch, the Gophers’ leading three-point shooter from a year ago, lost 15 pounds and worked on his shot in the offseason.

He said he feels like he has something to prove going into his senior year.

“I felt I was under the radar [last season],” Welch said. “It definitely adds fuel to the fire.”

Welch, who also led the Gophers in assists last year, has practiced at both guard positions. But he said he feels most at home at shooting guard.

Sophomore guard Andre Hollins will most likely run the offense from the point guard position, with players like Austin Hollins, Welch and Joe Coleman rotating in as the other guard.

Smith knows sixth-year senior Mbakwe will attract the most attention, so his guards will have to take shots when they get them.

“[Austin Hollins] is a total team player, sometimes to a fault,” Smith said. “We need him to take the open shot when it’s there.”

Hollins was the team’s second-best three-point shooter last year, and both he and Welch are expecting to flourish on this year’s deep team.

“This team has amazing depth,” Welch said. “I feel like a lot of national media will be sleeping on us. We’ll shock some teams this year.”

Minnesota’s first chance to shock anyone will come in its opening-round game against Duke on Nov. 22 in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.