Joe Coleman stepping up as one of Gophers' premier scoring threats
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MINNEAPOLIS -- No longer bogged down by freshman inexperience, guard Joe Coleman has freed himself up to inherit a role as one of the Gophers' primary scoring threats in the season ahead.
The sample size has been limited to only two exhibition games, but on first take, Coleman's refreshed outlook and grounded confidence level has shown on the court in impressive fashion. If the Gophers are looking for a go-to scorer outside of seniors Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe, Coleman appears ready to step in.
"I'm a lot more relaxed," Coleman said. "I know what Coach Smith wants. I know how the college game works. It's just a lot easier for me right now."
The soft-spoken sophomore guard has indeed been making it look easy. He followed up his 21-point outburst last Thursday against Minnesota State by rolling to a game-high 15 points, as the Gophers concluded their two-game exhibition slate on Monday night with an 86-59 defeat of Southwest Baptist.
With the Gophers deep with returning players, and Mbakwe and center Mo Walker back healthy, there is an a slight factor of the unknown with how Tubby Smith's lineup will shake out this season. But Coleman is making it clear he wants to be at the forefront.
"He's been the most consistent player in practice and he's showing it in games," Smith said after Monday's game.
As a freshman, Coleman stayed primarily in the background for much of the year, busting out here and there with double-digit scoring nights. Towards the tailend of the season, the on-court inconsistencies he battled early on gradually abated.
By late February, he moved into the Gophers' starting lineup on what turned out to be a permanent basis. Coleman, who finished the year averaging 5.8 points per game, started at shooting guard for the last 11 games, maintaining his spot throughout the Gophers' NIT run.
It doesn't look like he'll be leaving that spot any time soon.
Coleman's transformation further bolsters the Gophers' already promising backcourt. With fellow sophomore Andre Hollins handling point guard responsibilities and junior Austin Hollins out on the wing, Coleman provides a reliable and explosive complement in the two-spot.
The immediate impact Coleman has had so far this year has left an impression on his teammates.
"He's being aggressive. That's how he was in high school, and that's what we expected from him," Mbakwe said. "We're going to need that aggressiveness and that scoring from him ... He's playing with a lot of confidence, and we're going to need it going forward."
Work in progress
Flashes of the Gophers' potential as a top-tier squad in the Big Ten were present on Monday, but they are still a team searching for fluidity throughout its roster.
Smith stuck with the same lineup as he used last week, and likely the same one the Gophers will start the season with in their opener on Friday against American.
The starting five -- Hollins, Coleman, Austin Hollins, Williams and center Elliott Eliason - has carried over some of the chemistry that had been building at the end of last season. Coleman, Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and Williams were responsible for 50 of the Gophers' 86 total points.
But as was the case against Minnesota State, the results began to vary when Smith started to rotate through different lineup combinations. When the second unit came in around five minutes into the game the Gophers' 11-2 lead dwindled to a one-point game by the midway point of the first half before they eventually settled in.
Turnovers have been a concern. In the two exhibitions, they coughed up the ball 31 total times. On Monday, the Gophers had nine players responsible for at least one of their 17 turnovers. They also were unable find success from long-range, converting only two 3-pointers. It was quite the contrast to Southwest Baptist, who attempted a wowing 36 threes - 10 of those resulted in points
The positives are certainly there for the Gophers. They improved upon their rebound numbers, controlling the boards 47-30. And Smith was satisfied with the number of times his team was able to get to the free throw line. The Gophers exploited Southwest Baptist's lack of size inside and got themselves to the line 32 times - more than triple their attempts from last Thursday -- though they made only 22 of those.
Mbakwe logged his first minutes with the team's core starters, coming off the bench to fill in for Eliason. Smith continues to be cautious about when he uses Mbakwe. The senior forward, who is coming off 10 months of rehab from a torn ACL, tallied three points and a trio of rebounds in the 11 minutes he was cleared to play.
Mbakwe hasn't fully recovered his game-changing form that made him one of the Big Ten's premier players before his injury, but it's coming back in spurts. He put down his first dunk of the year -a one-handed slam in traffic - in the second quarter.
"I liked the way he moved on the perimeter. He showed a lot of lateral quickness," Smith said. "When you have a knee injury like that, you worry about how you're going to recover and push off, that kind of thing, and I thought he did a good job at that."