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published Tuesday, December 27th - 12:20pm

Tubby Smith's basketball team did not engage in an arduous nonconference schedule to prepare for tonight's Big Ten opener at Illinois. The Gophers played 13 games; three were neutral-site games in a tournament in Orlando, and the other 10 were played in Williams Arena.

The Gophers lost both a game, to Dayton, and star Trevor Mbakwe, to knee injury, in the final of the Orlando tournament.

There have been six games in Williams Arena since then, starting with Virginia Tech (a worthy opponent from the ACC) and Southern Cal (a lousy team from the Pac-12).

SinceDec. 6, they have played Appalachian State, St. Peter's, Central Michigan and North Dakota State ... four games in three weeks against teams lured to Williams Arena for a paycheck.

The Gophers tossed up a clunker against NDSU last week and survived 63-59. And now they have the task of going to Illinois and Michigan (on Sunday) to open the Big Ten schedule, and no one has an idea how these Gophers are going to react to a road game because they haven't played one.

This is Smith's fifth season at Minnesota. His first team went 0-1 in the NIT, his second and third teams went 0-1 in the NCAA, and his 2010-11 lost 10 of its last 11 in the Big Ten and didn't play in the postseason.

It doesn't have to turn out that way again. Minus Mbakwe, you still would prefer Minnesota's personnel to Penn State, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern - and the Gophers play all four of those teams on the road. Win those games, regain a little Barn magic to go 6-3 at home, and the Gophers are in the NCAA tournament field.

Smith figures to have a 10-player rotation tonight and in the Big Ten. Here is a look at what those players have done in the six games since Mbakwe was knocked out of the lineup:


*Austin Hollins/ He plays on the wing and is the Gophers' main three-point shooter. He's averaged 26 minutes, 7 points and gone 16 of 41 from the field in Mbakwe's absence.

*Rodney Williams/ Mbakwe's loss has been a bonanza for Williams, since he now has space in the lane to operate. He's averaged 32 minutes, 12.7 points and all those dunks and bunnies have him at 30 of 41 from the field.

*Julian Welch/ He had a bad night vs. NDSU, and he turns the ball over too much, but he does produce offensively. He's averaged 27.5 minutes, 12.8 points and is 25 for 44 from the field in the last six.

*Ralph Sampson III/ He missed the first two post-Mbakwe games with a bad ankle. He's averaged 22 minutes (with 28 vs. NDSU), 11.5 points and is 17 for 31 from the field in the last four.

*Maverick Ahanmisi/ Freshman Andre Hollins' minor injury and mediocre play has allowed the sophomore Ahanmisi to take over at point guard. In three games as a starter, he's averaged 27 minutes, 8.7 points and gone 8 for 12 from the field.


*Andre Hollins/ He lost his starting job to Ahanmisi - and for more reasons than a sore ankle. In the past five games he's played, Hollins has averaged 18 minutes, 2.6 points and has gone 4 for 18 from the field.

*Chip Armelin/ He's the Gophers' most valuable reserve, averaging 19 minutes, 7 points and going 17 for 33 from the field in the past six games.

*Joe Coleman/ The freshman has a tendency to get lost on defense, but he's dynamic driving to the basket. He was little-used in the first two games after Mbakwe was hurt. In the last four games, he's averaged 13.5 minutes, gone 9 for 15 from the field, and averaged 8 points (including zero vs. NDSU).

*Elliott Eliason/ He was a big contributor when Sampson was missing in the wins over Virginia Tech and Southern Cal, then was ineffective vs. Appalachian and his playing time has gone away. Eliason has averaged less than nine minutes and 3.0 points in the past three games.

*Oto Osenieks/ Quincy Lewis, a Thursday regular on Reusse + Mackey, keeps telling us this guy is the Gophers' best shooter from distance. Tubby must not be convinced. In the past five games, Osenieks has averaged 10 minutes and gone 3 for 10 from the field.

Andre Ingram, a JUCO transfer (along with Welch), might see a few minutes if there's foul trouble up front, but he's not really in the rotation.

So what happens with the Gophers in 2012? They beat the bad teams on the road, pull off a couple of uosets in the Barn, wind up at 9-9, and get back to the NCAA tournament. After that, I need to know the draw before forecasting Smith's first postseason victory at Minnesota.