Addressing inconsistent guard play key for 'U' in season's final week
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MINNEAPOLIS -- In a weekend of intrigue across the Big Ten, the Gophers head to Purdue Saturday for their regular season finale with more at stake than one would have expected.
A deflating 53-51 loss at Nebraska on Wednesday served as a knife to cut the momentum the Gophers had been building after an upset of No. 1 Indiana and a 29-point romp against Penn State. As a result, they are facing the need to win on Saturday not only to regain some of their edge entering the postseason next week, but also to keep themselves from dropping as far ninth place in the Big Ten standings.
The Gophers require another dose of confidence, which took a heavy hit on Senior Night at the Bob Devaney Center.
Turnover woes have plagued the Gophers all season, but those issues have been efficiently held in check in their three games since coughing up the ball 24 times at Ohio State, posting 10 or fewer in each game.
That was partly what made the Gophers' loss to Nebraska even more troublesome. The issue wasn't ball control. A glaring off night from the floor for key players Rodney Williams, Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins, as well as a 10-of-20 performance from the free throw line, added up in a defeat that has the Gophers trying to regroup again.
"If we get just five free throws I'm in a different mode. We're all in a different mood, but we didn't," coach Tubby Smith said after practice on Friday.
As would be expected, free throws have been a major area of emphasis in the practices since, requiring players to put up around 100 shots from the line each day.
But addressing the Gophers' shooting inconsistencies, specifically from their guards, is the larger issue.
Junior Austin Hollins, who has proven to be hard to contain when he gets into a rhythm, has been struggling through a prolonged shooting slump. Including his 0-for-5 outing at Nebraska, Hollins has shot 32% from the floor in the Gophers last nine games, nearly a 10% drop from his field goal percentage in the first 21 games of the season.
Hollins, the Gophers' leading 3-point shooter last season with 51 (37%), has made only 13.6% of his attempts (6-of-44) in the last nine games. On top of that, he is shooting 23.5% (16-of-68) from long-range since going off for five 3-pointers against Northwestern in the team's second Big Ten game of the season.
"Austin hasn't shot the ball well for 10 games, and when he's not playing well we're going to have a tough time," Smith said.
Hollins has had four games during Big Ten play in which he did not convert a shot from the floor. The Gophers lost all four of those.
Smith noted that he wants to see Hollins post up more, and work to get out into transition for easy shots. If Hollins can regain some of his shooting poise, the Gophers' offense could receive a needed jolt.
Hollins has earned a reputation for being one of the most unflappable players on the Gophers' roster. His slump has obviously been an unwanted burden, but his straightforward manner remains intact.
"I don't think there is one thing I can point to (as the problem). I just haven't been shooting like I'm capable of," Hollins said. "If you're not doing what you're capable of you beat yourself up about it, but you have to keep your confidence up and keep it positive.
Hollins isn't alone. Guard Andre Hollins has also battled through a flurry ups and down. During the same nine-game stretch that Austin Hollins has stumbled in, Andre Hollins has shot a 29.8% from the floor (31-of-104), lowering his previous 45% season average to 37.7%
Against Nebraska, it wasn't until the final seven minutes that Hollins hit all four of his made shots in the game, three of which came from long-range.
Combined, Andre and Austin Hollins have hit only 25% of their 100 3-pointer attempts since the start of February (25-of-100), with Andre accounting for 19 of those.
As a pair, they have been responsible for more than three-fourths of the Gophers' production from long-range during the Big Ten season. Without them providing some consistency from outside, the Gophers have been sorely lacking other answers. In 17 conference games, the rest of the team has converted on just 24 of 89 attempts from outside (26%).
The outside shooting struggles allows opponents to collapse inside more on forward Trevor Mbakwe and his fellow post players, as Nebraska did on Wednesday.
"We're kind of limited when those two guys are not shooting (well). We really are," Smith said. "Because (guard) Joe (Coleman) is not an outside threat. Rodney is not an outside threat. We expected (forward) Oto (Osenieks) to be a better outside threat. He hasn't really shot the ball well all year."
Hollins continues to be the Gophers' most dangerous scorer in the backcourt, but their postseason future depends largely on how he and Austin Hollins perform in the next few games.
• After two games of using a starting lineup featuring all four of the Gophers' seniors, Smith appears set on returning to his original five starters - Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins, Joe Coleman, Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe. Smith didn't confirm the change, but did allow that it would "probably" happen.
• Senior guard Julian Welch sat out practice Friday due to illness. However, Smith said he expects Welch will still be available against Purdue.