Coach Tubby Smith touted the Gophers’ depth as one of their greatest strengths before the Big Ten season started.
But it appears to be one of Minnesota’s looming weaknesses as the team is 6-7 in the conference.
Starter Rodney Williams, the Gophers’ second-leading scorer, is a “game-time decision” Wednesday against Ohio State.
The senior is nursing a sore left shoulder he suffered before the Gophers’ Feb. 10 loss to Illinois.
Sophomore center Elliott Eliason is likely to start, shifting senior Trevor Mbakwe to power forward.
The midseason injury to Williams exacerbates the Gophers’ offensive struggles off the bench.
“We need to not only get our points but bump it up to his production [level] to fill in that gap,” Eliason said.
Although Williams’ numbers have regressed from his junior year, his absence has been felt on the court.
In the Gophers’ three wins during their last 10 games, Williams has shot 44 percent or better while attempting at least nine shots and scoring at least 10 points.
“Obviously he’s a focal point of our offense,” Mbakwe said about Williams. “But we have a lot of guys who can step up and lead the team.”
Minnesota, which has averaged 54 points in its last three games, was sputtering offensively even with a healthy Williams.
Now reserves like senior Andre Ingram, sophomore Oto Osenieks and Eliason will be asked to fill in for Williams’ 11.4 points per game. The trio has combined to score 5.6 points per game.
“I have confidence in them to get the job done,” Smith said about his bench.
Eliason, the team’s lone seven-footer, is useful in almost every statistical category except scoring. The Gophers’ only true center led the team in assists in Sunday’s loss to Iowa while point guard Andre Hollins sat much of the game with foul trouble.
“I’m not a scorer,” Eliason said. “So it’ll probably be by committee, by Mo [Walker] putting in four points, I put in a few points a game.”
Eliason’s vision on the court is uncommon for such a big guy, but he has yet to develop any post moves to benefit the Gophers’ offense.
The Chadron, Neb., native provides a boost to rebounding and blocked shots, two categories Minnesota already excels in.
Eliason hasn’t scored more than four points in a Big Ten game since Feb. 26, 2012, against Indiana, when he had six points — a Big Ten-career high.
Osenieks has played Williams’ role when Smith goes with a small lineup.
The sophomore played a season-high 20 minutes in Sunday’s 21-point loss at Iowa.
He was brought in as a late addition to the 2010-11 recruiting class in large part because of his natural shooting ability. Smith said when he recruited Osenieks he gave the team depth at both forward positions.
But Osenieks has scored in double digits just once in his Big Ten career.
This season, the Latvia native is 2-for-23 from beyond the arc and averages 1.4 points in his 12 Big Ten appearances.
Ingram is a senior, but like Trevor Mbakwe, he’s playing in just his second Big Ten season.
The power forward hasn’t taken a shot in the last six games and serves more as a defensive presence than anything else.
But Smith said after practice Tuesday that he’ll look for Ingram, along with Walker, to fill in for Williams’ scoring.
“But we’ve got to get some better play out of them,” Smith said.
Aside from the reserves, point guard Andre Hollins said he knows he needs to change the way he plays in lieu of Williams.
“I have to penetrate more,” Hollins said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean taking more shots but keeping the ball in my hands to make the right decisions. That’s what I’ve learned this past month.”