Minnesota opens season with home exhibition vs. Bemidji State

Tubby Smith said the team will stress an up-tempo style Tuesday.

Charlie Armitz

The Gophers menâÄôs basketball team kicks off its 2011-12 season Tuesday night with an exhibition game against Division II opponent Bemidji State at Williams Arena.

The focus of head coach Tubby Smith? Playing fast.

Smith said Monday that he wants to return to an up-tempo style of basketball âÄî the kind of basketball Minnesota was forced to abandon last season when Blake Hoffarber switched to the point guard position.

âÄúThis year, weâÄôll be totally different,âÄù Smith said. âÄúItâÄôll be a lot different than the last half of [last] season when we had to play slow and walk it up the court. We didnâÄôt play anything but half-court basketball.âÄù

While Smith said he isnâÄôt ready to announce his starting point guard, he did say the team will press more on defense and push the pace.
MinnesotaâÄôs opponent will likely look to do the same Tuesday.

Bemidji State, which finished tied for 10th in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference last season at 8-14, plays a fast-paced, inside-out game that Smith said could cause problems for the Gophers.

âÄúTheyâÄôll get out and run, theyâÄôll attack with long passes, theyâÄôll attack you off the dribble,âÄù Smith said. âÄúTheyâÄôll give us some of the looks that will create problems for us.âÄù

One notable problem is the shooting ability of the BeaversâÄô forwards, James Ellisor and Mason Walters.

âÄúItâÄôs always a challenge when you have your big man try to go out and guard perimeter guys who can put the ball on the floor and shoot with range,âÄù Smith said. âÄúTheyâÄôre a team that has guys that can do some of those things.âÄù

Minnesota defeated Bemidji State 88-32 in the only previous meeting between the two teams Nov. 3, 2006.

The Beavers finished 5-23 overall that year âÄî much worse than their 11-15 record in 2010-11.

While Bemidji StateâÄôs recent history has been a tale of steady improvement, MinnesotaâÄôs has been one of late-season and late-game frustration.

Smith said that putting the right lineup on the floor late in games will be crucial this season, even more important than his much-discussed starting lineup.

âÄúIâÄôm not a big worrier about starting,âÄù he said. âÄúIâÄôm more concerned about finishing. Last year, we didnâÄôt have a lot of finishers. This year, everythingâÄôs about finishing.âÄù

The faster pace Smith said he will implement could be a step toward that goal.

âÄúCoach just wants us to keep pushing the ball,âÄù senior forward Trevor Mbakwe said. âÄúThatâÄôs where weâÄôre going to score a lot. I think thatâÄôs one of the things we lacked last year when we were forced to play half-court ball and werenâÄôt able to score as many points.âÄù

Sophomore guard Austin Hollins, who led Minnesota in steals in 2010-11, said the team is better equipped to play faster this year.

âÄúWe have so many different combinations that we can put on the floor,âÄù Hollins said, âÄúand weâÄôre a lot more athletic than we were last year and a lot quicker.

âÄúI think itâÄôs definitely going to be [more] up-tempo,âÄù he said.

Hollins is expected to be the teamâÄôs starting shooting guard, although freshman Joe Coleman has earned SmithâÄôs praise this preseason.

Julian Welch, Maverick Ahanmisi and Andre Hollins are the three contenders for the point guard position.

Welch turned his ankle in a scrimmage Sunday and may not be available Tuesday night, Smith said.