Could the Gophers be a better team without Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III?
In the long run, probably not. But as Minnesota (8-1) rides a two-game winning streak into Tuesday’s home game against Appalachian State, everything besides the team’s health is going surprisingly well.
At Tubby Smith’s Monday press conference, the fifth-year head coach discussed in depth how his team has improved with its two senior big men out of the lineup.
“The guys know that they all have to do more of the little things, like screening, cutting, passing, rebounding,” Smith said. “We understand now that it has to be a team mentality and not just ‘try to find Trevor.’”
“Trevor drew a lot of attention inside, and I think that made us a little bit stagnant,” he added. “Guys were kind of standing around.”
While Minnesota’s offense hasn’t lit up the scoreboard without Mbakwe — the team has averaged 56.5 points in the two games since his injury — it has allowed a number of individuals to thrive.
Junior Rodney Williams, who has started at power forward in Mbakwe’s place, is averaging 13 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 3 steals at his new position. Prior to Mbakwe’s injury, when Williams played small forward, he averaged 7.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.0 blocks and 1.6 steals.
“Rodney has probably benefited more thananybody with moving a position,” Smith said. “He’s really becoming a complete player. He’s maturing and growing up and understanding how he can best help the team.”
Williams is shooting 60 percent from the field this season and 79 percent in his last two games. Last season, he shot 47 percent.
“I think I’ve been able to outrun the [big men] that have been guarding me,” Williams said. “That’s why I’ve really excelled since Trevor’s been gone.
“Right now I feel like [power forward] is my best position just for the fact that I can create a lot of mismatches that way,” he added.
Williams also credited his teammates for getting him open shots.
A big part of that is junior college transfer Julian Welch, who has become the Gophers’ best outside scorer and facilitator over the past week and a half.
Since the opening game of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., Welch has led the team in scoring (14.2 points), 3-point shooting (3-for-4), free throws made and attempted (19-for-21) and assists (15).
He was able to step into the starting lineup as the shooting guard after Mbakwe went down and has since seen his minutes-per-game average increase from 19.3 to 33.
Williams’ minutes per game have gone up from 26 to 36. He played the first 19 minutes in the second half of Minnesota’s 55-40 win against USC.
As a whole, Smith has been forced to use his bench less, especially in the second half. He has cut down on using “line changes” — substituting in all five reserves at once — while giving his starters extended minutes.
Those things may have never happened if Mbakwe hadn’t gotten hurt.
“Sometimes out of adversity — out of necessity — innovation happens, and all of a sudden, look what we’ve discovered,” Smith said, “That’s pretty much what has happened for us.”
Sophomore Austin Hollins has moved to small forward but is more of a conventional shooting guard. He said the guards understand their new role.
“It’s just a matter of going out there and knowing what we have to do,” Hollins said. “The guards have to go in there and get a lot more rebounds, and we have to be more aware on the court.
About Welch, he added: “Juliancomes in and he’s a leader on the floor, and he brings in another guard that can shoot the ball.”
The tandem of Welch and Williams has been Minnesota’s calling card down the stretch of games, where it has excelled throughout 2011-12.
It’s no guarantee that the Gophers’ four remaining nonconference opponents — Appalachian State, St. Peter, Central Michigan and North Dakota State — will provide Minnesota with further opportunities to test its new rotation.
The Mountaineers (4-3) have never defeated the Gophers, and are 1-6 all-time against current Big Ten teams, with their only win coming in 1993 against Nebraska.
Still, Smith said Minnesota will need to continue its high level of play to maintain its undefeated home record (7-0).
“They’ve got a good team, a team that can come in and beat us if we don’t come in and play our game and control the tempo,” Smith said.
Smith said Monday he wasn’t sure whether Sampson (ankle) would play Tuesday. He also said that freshman point guard Andre Hollins did not practice Sunday after he twisted his ankle in Saturday's game.
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