Minnesota to face another nonconference test in Fairfield

The Gophers have never played the Stags, but Thursday’s inaugural meeting could be a close contest.

Charlie Armitz

ItâÄôs no secret that the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team has a light nonconference schedule in 2011-12.

That doesnâÄôt mean, however, that head coach Tubby Smith âÄî or anyone else, for that matter âÄî knows what to expect.

As a young team with no clear point guard, Minnesota (2-0) has struggled against lower-tier opponents early in 2011. Another one comes to town Thursday in Fairfield (1-1), a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference school that has never faced the Gophers.

âÄúItâÄôll be another good test for us,âÄù Smith said, âÄúand I think thatâÄôs something, early on, that this team needs.âÄù

On paper, the Stags would appear to be no problem for Minnesota, as they list four starters shorter than 6-feet-5-inches and two shorter than 6 feet.

MinnesotaâÄôs starting lineup âÄî which has remained the same in each of the teamâÄôs four games this season âÄî features three players taller than 6-feet-7-inches and two taller, more physical guards.

Yet the Gophers have at times struggled with rebounding, and their guards have dealt with foul trouble as a result of playing aggressive defense.

Point guard candidates Andre Hollins, Julian Welch and Maverick Ahanmisi have combined to commit 13 fouls through two regular season games and have 10 assists compared to nine turnovers.

None of the three floor generals have stood out early, which leaves the point guard battle wide-open at the moment.

Smith said he doesnâÄôt mind using his bench, though. He praised the teamâÄôs second unit for providing a spark in the teamâÄôs 71-55 win against South Dakota State on Monday.

âÄúWeâÄôre not a team thatâÄôs just going to run people off the court anyways, so weâÄôve got to execute,âÄù Smith said. âÄúI thought we cut back on our turnovers, did a better job in that game. ThatâÄôs exactly what IâÄôm looking for from the guys that come off the bench âÄî to give us that type of spirit, that type of energy.âÄù

Senior forward Trevor Mbakwe said the second unit came up big on defense as well.

âÄúAndre [Ingram] and Joe [Coleman] came into the game and really turned it on,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄúWhen they came in, they were able to pick up the intensity and force turnovers. They did a really good job for us, and thatâÄôs what weâÄôre going to need.âÄù

When the GophersâÄô bench hasnâÄôt performed well, Mbakwe has been forced to carry the load on both sides of the ball.

The senior forward talked about being a leader before the season, and so far, he has held true to his word, averaging 17 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots.

âÄúI think heâÄôs a little more patient,âÄù Smith said. âÄúI think heâÄôs focused now; heâÄôs not playing to the crowd like he had a tendency to. HeâÄôs a bit more business-like now.âÄù

Smith added, âÄúI think he understands what heâÄôs capable of doing, and when to pick his opportunities.âÄù

For Mbakwe and the rest of the team, the opportunities have come in the second half.

Mbakwe scored 13 points in the second half of each of the teamâÄôs first two wins, and in both wins, the Gophers trailed in the second half before making a late run.

ThatâÄôs a huge step up from last season, when the team struggled to close out games.

âÄúIâÄôm really proud of the way our kids have been competing, not just at games, but even in practice,âÄù Smith said. âÄúGuys are getting better, really understanding our system better.âÄù