Tubby Smith likes the “character” of his team and his players have earned the praise.
The Gophers defeated Central Michigan last night, running their nonconference record to 11-1. It was the team’s fifth consecutive win since Dayton clobbered the Gophers in the championship game of the Old Spice Classic on November 27. Even more painful on that night was the season ending ACL injury to the team’s best player and potential All-American, senior forward Trevor Mbakwe.
“It tells me a lot about our character, recovering from the loss of one of your top players like Trevor,” Smith said recently. “I think that changed the mentality, the toughness, the character of this team but we all know it’s going to get a lot more difficult as we get past Christmas. So we’ve got to continue to play well.”
Gophers junior forward Rodney Williams is averaging career highs in points, 9.4, and rebounds, 4.5, and has played his best basketball since Mbakwe went down. He’s emerged as a leader defensively, too. He spoke about the determination of this team.
“Coming into this season there weren’t a lot of people that believed in us,” he said recently. “Especially after Trevor went down, there definitely weren’t too many people that believed in us. But we know what we got here. …”
The Gophers have one more nonconference game on the schedule, December 22 at home against North Dakota State. The Big Ten schedule starts five days later at Illinois and as Smith said, the challenge becomes more difficult for this team.
The Gophers have consistently been willing to work with effort both offensively and defensively. Their ball movement on offense may be the best of Smith’s five teams at Minnesota and with multiple shot blockers even without Mbakwe the Gophers can be difficult to score on near the basket.
Certainly the Gophers are a team with limitations including erratic outside shooting and problems defending three point field goal attempts. Their nonconference schedule has been played entirely at home except for three neutral court games in Orlando for the Old Spice Classic so this team hasn’t been tested on the road. There have been only a few big school opponents, leaving little doubt the schedule—similar to other Big Ten schools—is built for early wins, not games against top 40 teams.
But the players don’t make the schedule and they have accepted the challenge of playing together and with effort no matter who comes to town. And when Mbakwe and center Ralph Sampson III and point guard Andre Hollins haven’t played because of injuries, it’s been “next man up” to do the job.
How they will perform in the Big Ten will be determined but the team that most everyone said even last summer wouldn’t contend for a high finish in the conference standings has exceeded expectations during the nonconference schedule. That’s what counts today.