Roster depleted, intense practices become tougher

The Gophers have just eight athletes healthy and eligible, making competitive training elusive in recent weeks.

Josh Katzenstein

Once February rolls around, many menâÄôs college basketball teams turn up the intensity in practice hoping it can translate into crucial games down the stretch.

The Gophers, with just eight healthy and eligible scholarship players, donâÄôt have that luxury.

âÄúWe canâÄôt afford to lose anybody else,âÄù coach Tubby Smith said after practice Tuesday. âÄúThe competition brings out the intensity, and we donâÄôt have the competition.âÄù

Since losing Al Nolen (foot) and Mo Walker (knee) to injuries, the players in MinnesotaâÄôs rotation have seen a drop in the competition they face in practice. The eight regular players wear maroon jerseys and practice against the gold squad of Dominique Dawson (a sophomore walk-on), Elliott Eliason (redshirted freshman), Oto Osenieks (ineligible freshman), Chris Halvorsen (sophomore transfer) and either a manager or assistant coach.

Last season the GophersâÄô main rotation players practiced against, among others, junior Paul Carter, senior Devron Bostick and current star Trevor Mbakwe, who sat out due to a criminal investigation.

âÄúThey were busting those guysâÄô butts,âÄù Smith said of last yearâÄôs practice squad. âÄúNow itâÄôs a little bit tougher to get that same type of intensity.âÄù

The lack of intensity hinders the development of MinnesotaâÄôs three freshmen âÄî Chip Armelin, Austin Hollins and Maverick Ahanmisi âÄî more than anyone else. Without being able to practice against more-seasoned players, itâÄôs harder to ask the freshmen to drastically raise their intensity from practice to game situations, Smith said.

ThatâÄôs not to say the freshmen havenâÄôt played well in their first season with the team, and Smith lauded their resilience through what has been a disappointing run of six losses in seven games.

âÄúYoung guys, they recover a lot quicker than coaches or even veteran players âÄî especially freshmen,âÄù Smith said after the Gophers fell to Michigan State on Tuesday. âÄúThose guys work extremely hard. They may be the hardest working group of freshmen I think IâÄôve ever had, and itâÄôs paying off.

âÄúItâÄôs just that theyâÄôre inexperienced.âÄù

That inexperience has shone through despite a few flashes of brilliance from the young guns. In TuesdayâÄôs loss to the Spartans, Armelin scored 12 points, including 11 in the second half, but he missed a late free throw and a 3-pointer that wouldâÄôve given the Gophers a lead in the final 30 seconds.

âÄúYou can see they get a little antsy, a little nervous,âÄù Smith said after the game. âÄúThat just comes with experience âÄî or lack of experience. It just takes time.âÄù

Smith made sure to note that intensity isnâÄôt the same thing as hard work in practice, asserting that the Gophers have been working to stop their recent funk. But the diminished bench is beginning to take a toll on the team, even if Smith said the available players are healthy, for the most part: Rodney Williams tweaked his knee in practice this week.

âÄúWeâÄôve been going pretty hard in practice, so IâÄôm sure guys are getting a little weary,âÄù Smith said. âÄúWe can get them as much rest as we can, but theyâÄôve got to play.âÄù

Minnesota will need all the hard work and intensity it can get when the Gophers host Michigan at Williams Arena on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.