Gophers practicing pack defense, Tucker and Oden honored

Minnesota interim coach Jim Molinari used to be an NBA scout.

Zach Eisendrath

Lawrence McKenzie, meet Tracy McGrady.

If the pack defense Minnesota’s men’s basketball team runs on a regular basis looks familiar, look no further than the NBA – the Houston Rockets in particular.

Interim coach Jim Molinari, who has stressed a defensive identity since taking over for former coach Dan Monson, tries to instill many of the same defensive principles Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy teaches to his NBA players.

“I’ve always loved the pack defense,” Molinari said. “I think the Rockets are the team that never looks different, whether they’re scoring or not scoring.”

As he tries to emulate their system, Molinari, a one-time scout for the Toronto Raptors and the Miami Heat, said he talks to members of Houston’s coaching staff to get a better understanding of the scheme.

Molinari goes as far as showing his team tape of the Rockets from time to time to motivate his players.

“We see guys who are making $50 million playing help-side defense and getting down in their stance, so you’re never too cool to play defense,” Minnesota sophomore center Jonathan Williams said.

The pack defense, which relies on continuous help and constant rotations, is all about having faith in your teammates, according to Williams.

“It’s a trust issue and letting everybody know you have each other’s back,” he said.

And the confidence Molinari’s team has in its defense was evident in Saturday’s 65-60 win over Penn State.

After giving up 25 points during the first 10 minutes of the game, the Gophers stuck to their defensive game plan and held the Nittany Lions to 27.6 percent shooting in the second half and just 35 points in the final 30 minutes of the game.

“We stayed with what we do,” Molinari said. “The big part of having a philosophy is being patient with it when it’s not going well.

“Like I tell our team, our only chance to win is if we are good defensively.”

Grateful red

Clearly, it’s a good year to play for the Badgers.

Just weeks after Wisconsin’s football team recorded its highest win total in school history, the men’s basketball team is off to its best start in program history.

The Badgers, owners of the nation’s longest winning streak at 17 games, are now 21-1 and are No. 2 in the latest ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll. Wisconsin’s current mark eclipses the team’s 20-1 start in 1915-16.

“For me as a player to be a part of this, it’s special,” senior forward Alando Tucker said after the Badgers’ win over Iowa on Saturday. “This is a special team and I have a gut feeling that we have so much more to accomplish. But it just feels good to know that we’re setting records here at Wisconsin.”

Although the streak is impressive, the Badgers understand they have much more to accomplish before deeming the season a success.

“It’s something to be proud of, I don’t want to play it off as no big deal,” junior center Brian Butch said Saturday. “But for us, we’re not concentrating right now on that.”

Co-players of the week

Two players, who will not only be considered for Big Ten Player of the Year honors, but as candidates for the National Player of the Year award, split this week’s Big Ten Player of the Week award.

Ohio State freshman center Greg Oden and Tucker shared the honors.

Oden, who is still shooting free throws with his left hand as his right hand continues to heal from a preseason injury, is starting to become the dominant force everyone expected.

The freshman center had a pair of double-doubles last week, registering a career-high 17 rebounds in a 59-50 victory at Northwestern and 19 points in a 66-64 win over Michigan State.

The freshman phenomenon – who is expected to go No. 1 in June’s NBA Draft, should he declare for the draft – is averaging a conference-leading 9.4 rebounds per game and is trying to become the first freshman since Minnesota’s Kris Humphries to lead the league in rebounds.

Oden, who has been described by some as the most intimidating defensive presence since Patrick Ewing, also leads the conference with 3.57 blocks.

In many ways, Tucker is the polar opposite of Oden. While Oden has gained national attention since high school, Tucker is the savvy senior who is only now getting national exposure after three-plus years of solid contributions.

The 6-foot-6, 200-pounder picked up his fourth weekly Big Ten honor of his career by averaging 21.5 points on 73.9 percent shooting. For the season, Tucker ranks second in the conference with 19.6 points per game.