Gophers face last 2 before Big Ten

Easy schedule gets easier as Gophers prepare for Big Ten.

Charlie Armitz

At this point in the season, itâÄôs hard for the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team to not look ahead.

Minnesota (10-1) has breezed through an easy nonconference schedule despite the loss of Trevor Mbakwe (torn ACL), a series of minor injuries to key players and subpar shooting.

Its opponent Tuesday, Central Michigan (4-4), has lost two straight and has never defeated the Gophers.

With the Big Ten schedule exactly two weeks away, itâÄôs anyoneâÄôs guess whether the Gophers will be a contender.

âÄúWe want to come out and prove to people that we can still hang in the Big Ten, even without Trevor,âÄù junior forward Rodney Williams said. âÄúComing into the season, nobody really gave us a chance, so we just want to get out there and show everybody what weâÄôve got.âÄù

While nonconference play is hardly a fair test of how the Gophers will stack up in the Big Ten, it has revealed some of the teamâÄôs strengths and weaknesses.

In MinnesotaâÄôs four games since Mbakwe went down âÄî all wins âÄî it has outscored its opponents 146-64 in the paint.

Yet the Gophers have struggled mightily on the perimeter. TheyâÄôve allowed opponents to shoot 37.6 percent from 3-point range âÄî second-to-last in the Big Ten ahead of Iowa.

Minnesota is just eighth in the conference in 3-point shooting at a 33-percent clip. Head coach Tubby Smith has called his team the best group of shooters he has coached at Minnesota, but so far in 2011-12, the team has yet to make more than eight 3-pointers in a game.

The team has also found ways to effectively close games âÄî but it has struggled mightily in first halves.

Through 11 games, the Gophers have outscored their opponents by an average of 3.8 points in the first half and 6.8 points in the second half. Take away their blowout win against Mount St. MaryâÄôs on Nov. 21 and the teamâÄôs first-half edge is just 0.5 points per game.

âÄúCoach always tells us that we need to come out strong, and I donâÄôt know why we always seem to get out to slow starts,âÄù Williams said. âÄúThereâÄôs going to be better matchups come Big Ten play, and if we get off to these slow starts, thatâÄôs going to be really tough for us.âÄù

Minnesota will likely have a chance to test its full roster Tuesday, as Smith said freshman point guard Andre Hollins âÄúshould be okay nowâÄù after missing the last game and a half with an ankle injury.

Senior Ralph Sampson III returned from his own ankle injury last week and scored 15 points in the GophersâÄô 69-47 win against St. PeterâÄôs.

Sampson, Williams and Julian Welch have established themselves as the teamâÄôs main scoring options with Mbakwe out. Role players such as Joe Coleman and Elliott Eliason have shown flashes of intensity and effective play.

Central Michigan will counter the GophersâÄô balanced attack with Trey Zeigler, a 6-foot-5-inch guard who leads the Chippewas with 17.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.

âÄúHeâÄôs a kid that can really do a lot of different things,âÄù Smith said. âÄúBut they have more than just him. They have a few guys who can score.âÄù

All five of Central MichiganâÄôs starters average 7.5 points or more, but its bench contributes fewer than 12 points per game.