Coaches push confidence as Minnesota hits the road

After losing four of five games, Minnesota is doing its best to stay optimistic.

Tubby Smith is as curious as anyone to see how his team will respond following its fourth loss in five games.

The first-year Minnesota men’s basketball coach and Gophers fans alike will receive that answer tonight when Minnesota plays Big Ten bottom-feeder Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill.

“I’m not worried, but concerned with how we’ll respond,” Smith said.

From the time the Gophers left Williams Arena after Sunday’s 63-47 loss to No. 8 Wisconsin until the team boarded a chartered flight Tuesday afternoon, Smith and his staff focused predominantly on first addressing issues of concern, then attempting to increase players’ confidence.

On Monday, Minnesota (13-7 overall, 3-5 Big Ten) held a team meeting to clear the air. Tuesday morning, Smith conducted the teams’ first scrimmage in weeks – pointing out specific areas the Gophers continue to excel in, despite their losing streak.

“I’m trying to show them we can be a lot better if they believe,” Smith said. “But we have to work twice as hard (as our opponent) when we are out there on the court to give ourselves a chance to win.”

Junior forward Jamal Abu-Shamala, who poured in a team-high 19 points in the Gophers’ 62-55 win over the Wildcats (7-12, 0-8) in Evanston last season, said he doesn’t believe the team’s early conference struggles have shattered its confidence.

On the contrary.

“Everyone still is confident, because we’ve been in games. If we were getting blown out every game it’s a different story, but we’re sticking with it,” he said.

“We know we are a better team than we’ve shown in the losses. We’ve beat ourselves in the losses a lot of time. If we just limit mistakes and learn to execute better at the end of games, we’ll be fine.”

McKenzie still adjusting to role

Senior guard Lawrence McKenzie was asked at the beginning of the year to move from shooting guard to point guard. Minnesota’s leading scorer from last season appears to still be adjusting to the move.

Now counted on to be the Gophers’ main ball-handler, McKenzie said he looks for open teammates before considering taking his own shot.

His pass-first mentality, at least early in games, has shown as of late.

McKenzie, whose scoring average has dropped from 14.9 points per game last season to 10.9 this year, has made a habit of following passive first halves with aggressive shooting during second halves.

Last Thursday, McKenzie followed a scoreless first half with an 18-point second half to guide the Gophers to a 77-65 victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor.

As the Gophers enter the thick of the conference season, McKenzie said he hopes to find the right balance between scorer and passer.

“I think I can do a little bit of both at the same time; get going scoring, attacking, and that can open up opportunities for my teammates,” he said.