Bench clutch once more

Zach Eisendrath

Don’t call the five players coming off the bench for the Minnesota men’s basketball team a “second unit.” The way those individuals are playing right now, they aren’t second to anyone.

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south dakota state
what: Men’s basketball
when: 7 p.m., Wednesday
where: Williams Arena

Once again led by their reserves, the Gophers pounced on a rebuilding Colorado State team early and never looked back, beating the Rams 91-74 in front of 12,003 fans Saturday night at Williams Arena.

Senior center Dan Coleman had a game-high 22 points and freshman shooting guard Blake Hoffarber added a career-high 21.

Just how useful is a deep roster? Minnesota answered that question Saturday.

The Gophers’ 10-man deep rotation’s ability to outrun and outgun an undermanned Colorado State squad – which became even thinner and smaller when seven-foot freshman center Ronnie Aguilar committed two fouls 45 seconds into the game, forcing him to the bench – was the difference against first-year Rams coach Tim Miles’ squad.

As was the case last Monday, when Minnesota coach Tubby Smith turned to his bench, the Gophers (6-1 overall, 0-0 Big Ten) once again turned away their opposition.

Fresh off a 41-point outburst in last Monday’s win over North Dakota State, Minnesota’s reserves – led by Hoffarber – finished with 44 points Saturday and turned a four-point game six minutes into the contest into a 23-point halftime lead, which would eventually balloon to as much as a 32-point lead against CSU (5-4, 0-0 Mountain West) in the second half.

It was Hoffarber, Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball in 2007, which had the game-changing performance on this night. The freshman sharp-shooter hit five first-half three pointers and had 18 points at the break to help put Minnesota up 50-27 after 20 minutes of action.

“Blake’s a big-time shooter. He didn’t (have) that many points in high school for no reason,” said Coleman. After his 14th point Saturday Coleman became only the 34th player in Minnesota basketball history to surpass 1,000 points for his career. “He’s been doing it every day in practice and he’s been consistent.”

Smith said he is not surprised with how well Hoffarber has progressed in only a few months with the team.

“He thinks, he listens, he concentrates when he is in there,” Smith said. “He’s got good basketball intelligence.”

Hoffarber was the story Saturday, but seemingly every night a new Minnesota player is stepping off the bench and contributing in one area or another.

The Gophers’ second unit has now put up 112 points in their past three games combined.

And lost in that stat is the swarming defense the platoon is providing the team. Example: Junior center Jon Williams’ four blocked shots and two steals Saturday evening.

Senior center Spencer Tollackson, who finished with 16 points on six-of-eight shooting, said seeing the bench play so well sparks the entire team.

“I’m really happy with the way this team is playing – unselfish and together,” Tollackson said. “The way guys are stepping up, it’s great.”

The other freshman

While Hoffarber stole the show Saturday night, his freshman counterpart, point guard Al Nolen, wasn’t shabby either. Nolen had 11 points, five assists and just one turnover in 17 minutes of work.

“Both him and Blake are as mature of freshmen as I have coached,” Smith said.

Starts in the post

Minnesota, which is now on a three-game winning streak after suffering its first and only loss of the season against Florida State on Nov. 27, was able to combat the Rams’ strategy of starting two seven-footers, getting both in foul trouble by giving the ball to Coleman and Tollackson early and often in the post.

The veteran duo scored the first 13 points for Minnesota, something that satisfied Smith.

“(Saturday) we set the tone early on,” Smith said. “I was certainly pleased with the way Spencer and Dan were attacking the basket early on.”

Noteworthy

The Gophers scored over 90 points for the first time since the 2005 season.

First-year Colorado State coach Tim Miles only has two players on his roster this season that played for the Rams last year. CSU has only eight players on scholarship.