Gophers pound Army at Williams in Smith’s debut

Head coach Tubby Smith earned his first regular season win at the “U” Saturday with a 84-52 win.

Zach Eisendrath

Clearly, this isn’t the same team that suffered a program-worst 22 losses last season.

Displaying a balanced offensive attack, mixed with stifling defense, the Minnesota men’s basketball team won its season-opener Saturday afternoon, beating Army 84-52 in front of 11,529 at Williams Arena in new coach Tubby Smith’s official debut with the program.

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iowa State
what: Men’s Basketball
when: 7 p.m., Tuesday Nov. 20
where: Ames, Iowa

Senior forward Dan Coleman scored a team-high 16 points and sophomore forward Damian Johnson added a career-high 12 points, eight rebounds, four steals and four blocked-shots off the bench to propel the Gophers to victory. Smith, who has never had a losing season in his 16-year coaching career, was pleased with how his first regular season game at the helm of Minnesota ended up.

“We have a lot to work on and a lot to improve on, but it was a good start,” he said. “Guys are starting to pick up (the system) and do the things we want them to do.”

Most encouraging for Smith and his staff might be that the Gophers were able to win easily without a strong offensive game from senior guard Lawrence McKenzie.

McKenzie, who averaged a team-best 14.9 points per game last season, looked rusty at times in his first game back from a groin injury, scoring just two points on 0-of-5 shooting.

Had someone told Minnesota fans last year that the Gophers were capable of winning by 32 points without McKenzie scoring in double figures, they likely wouldn’t have believed their ears.

But Minnesota, at least for now, is proving that it doesn’t just have to rely on its three seniors – Coleman, McKenzie and center Spencer Tollackson, to provide all the offense.

“One of the things we’ve tried to teach is that it is a team game and that you can’t count on one guy,” Smith said. “I think we have enough athletes on our team that we can be successful when one guy (struggles).”

McKenzie said he doesn’t mind deferring to his teammates when they have the hot hand.

“When you have other guys playing well, that’s who you go with,” McKenzie said. “(Saturday’s win) shows that it takes a team to win, not a player.”

Whether its Smith’s newly implemented up-tempo offense, the addition of two more than capable freshmen or just an overall change in team culture, something is making a team that on average scored 57.3 points last season look like an offensive juggernaut thus far this season.

The Gophers scored a combined 182 points in their two preseason games. On Saturday, all 11 active players scored as Minnesota led by as many as 36.

Encouraging should be the fact the Gophers got 46 points from their bench. Freshman guard Al Nolen had nine points and six assists, with no turnovers in 22 minutes of action. Junior center Jon Williams, known more for his defense and rebounding, showed a new array of low-post moves, pouring in eight points.

Johnson, who sparked the Maroon and Gold with his aggressive play on both ends of the floor during his 20 minutes on the court, said the guys on the bench just wanted to help relieve pressure from the starters.

“The bench just wanted to go out there and play hard and give the starters relief,” he said. “We just went out there and worked hard.”

Intense defense continues

Not to be lost in the Gophers’ season-opening win should be their defensive performance against the Black Knights.

For the third-straight game – counting both of the Gophers’exhibition wins – Minnesota looked comfortable in Smith’s ball-line defensive scheme.

The Gophers held Minnesota State (37 percent shooting) and Southwest Minnesota State (14 percent) to dismal shooting performances during the preseason. On Saturday, Minnesota pressured Army all day, even implanting a full-court trap from time to time, and forced 25 turnovers while holding the Black Knights to 35.2 percent shooting.

“We got after it pretty good defensively,” Smith said. “I thought our guys were very focused and very aggressive with their active hands and getting deflections (Saturday).”

Momentum

Now the Gophers get to carry around the confidence that accompanies a victory for over a week, as they don’t play their next game until Nov. 20 at Iowa State.

But from the sound of things, it doesn’t appear players will get too comfortable with their 1-0 start as they sit and wait for their next game.

“I think all us old guys who were here last year are hungry, so we are going to stay (hungry) in practice,” Coleman said. “We know that it’s one game. Obviously we have many more. Last year was definitely humbling. I think everybody in the locker room knows that, and is hungry to get better.”