Tubby Smith revamps offense
Coach Tubby Smith has long preferred a fast-paced offense that feeds off full-court pressure defense. None of that was present last season as the short-handed Gophers lost 10 of their last 11 games to miss out on the NCAA tournament. They averaged just 63.7 points in Big Ten play and shot less than 30 percent from 3-point range.
“It was ridiculous,” Smith said Monday. “(Even) I was bored.”
Smith prioritized good shooting in recruiting after career 3-point leader Blake Hoffarber graduated and the Gophers have focused on returning to an up-tempo style of play in the preseason. The fans will get their first look at how all that work is playing out when the Gophers open the exhibition season at home on Tuesday night against Division II Bemidji State.
“This year will be totally different,” Smith said. “We’re trying to extend our defense. We didn’t press at all over the last 12 games of the season. Really didn’t have the personnel. So we didn’t play anything but half-court basketball.”
Injuries to point guard Al Nolen and big man Mo Walker and the transfer of versatile guard Devoe Joseph left Smith with a team that was too young and too limited to employ the kind of style that he has used for so many years. Hoffarber was the only threat from the perimeter, which allowed defenses to collapse on Trevor Mbakwe in the paint.
With no true point guard to start the break, the Gophers spent the entire second half of the conference season walking the ball up and running a half-court offense with no discernible flow.
So Smith brought in guards Joe Coleman, Julian Welch, Andre Hollins and forward Andre Ingram to bolster the perimeter, and he said this is his best shooting team in five seasons at Minnesota. The infusion of youth and shooting skills have been the biggest difference in practices this year, Smith said.
“We’ve got more people that can make outside shots and keep people honest, keep people from doubling and trapping inside on Trevor and Ralph (Sampson III),” Smith said. “That’s what I expect and that’s why I recruited the guys I did.”
Mbakwe said he’s already seen a big difference. More room underneath for him and more chances to get out and run.
“Coach wants us to keep pushing the ball and that’s how we’re going to score a lot,” Mbakwe said. “I think that was one of our things we lacked last year. We were forced to play in the half-court more and we couldn’t score as many points.
“We have a lot of athletes this year and we just want to use everybody to their best advantage. We have the guys to do it and that’s the fun way to play. You don’t want to be slowing down. You want to keep pushing.”
Smith said Welch had a minor ankle injury in practice and may not be able to play against Bemidji State. Mbakwe and Sampson, the two seniors, will start, but the rest of the positions are still up in the air. That includes junior Rodney Williams, a high flyer who has yet to emerge as the athletic playmaker everyone expected when he arrived on campus.
Smith made it a point to say that Williams was still “battling it out with some people there,” clearly trying to send a message to motivate him. Smith wants to see improved shooting and defense in order for Williams to earn his playing time.
“The competition’s pretty stiff right now for him,” Smith said.