Sandell: Julian Welch searching for stability off Gophers' bench
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Williams Arena court emptied out, but Julian Welch stayed, posted up beyond the 3-point line, receiving passes from a team manager and launching shot after shot.
After a spattering of misses, Welch began to connect. Once in a rhythm, his low arching shot was rarely off target.
But finding that rhythm has been Welch's problem. The Gophers senior guard's post-practice sessions have become increasingly common this season. Implored by the coaching staff after a struggle-filled two months, Welch has often found himself still on the court following practice, searching for a spark to reverse his shooting woes.
"My shot hasn't been falling," Welch said. "The only thing to do is to keep getting up more shots, individually. That's what I'm doing."
It's been a rough start to his senior season. While Gophers have garnered national attention with their 11-1 record and No. 13 spot in the AP poll, Welch has been stuck mostly in the background. Ten months ago, Welch was an everyday starter, but he has since had to adapt to an off-the-bench role -- an adjustment that has clearly not been a smooth one.
In the first 10 games of the season, Welch, a 35% 3-point shooter last year, converted on only two of his 14 shots from long-range. With his outside shooting waning, his point total has plummeted. He has resurfaced recently with 13 points in his last two games, thanks to a trio of 3-pointers, but is still averaging just 3.6 points.
"He's had a horrible 3-point shooting (percentage)," coach Tubby Smith said, bluntly. "He lives in 3-point shooting and now he's our worst 3-point shooter, but he's gotten better ... We've been encouraging him to get out here and shoot more and just work on his shot, work on his rotation."
To correct Smith, Welch doesn't have the lowest 3-point percentage among the Gophers' outside shooters (5-of-19, 26%) -- that title goes to forward Oto Osenieks (1-of-16, 6.3%) and guard Joe Coleman (3-of-12, 25%). However, Smith's point remains intact. Without a consistent long distance shot, Welch has been glaringly ineffective.
The Gophers recruited Welch in 2011 out of Yuba Community College (Calif.) to add an edge of experience to their despairingly youthful backcourt, which included two freshman and three sophomores. He gave the Gophers exactly what they were looking for at the time, stepping into a starting role right away. Entrusted to be a go-to scorer, he started 21 games at guard and finished third on the team in scoring (9.5 ppg).
Slowly, his job description changed. The late-season emergence of then-freshmen Andre Hollins and Coleman signaled an impending changing of the guard. A hip pointer sidelined Welch in back-to-back games in early February. Since that point, Welch has been absent from the starting lineup.
For a player who has been a starter for much of his career, that type of abrupt move can come as a shock to the system.
"It's tough, because when that happens you feel like you're not doing something right, said senior forward Rodney Williams, who has experience multiple alternations to his role in his four seasons on campus. "Then you try to fix things and you're still in that same spot, and you don't really know what to do."
The drop-off in Welch's numbers wasn't immediately drastic. Throughout the Gophers' two-game stint in the Big Ten Tournament and run to the NIT championship, Welch averaged 6.5 points, with a 45% mark from 3-point territory, and 21 minutes per game.
The discrepancy has shown up this year. With the Gophers' boasting their most potent lineup Smith's tenure, Welch has continued to be a role player. Hollins, Coleman and fellow guard Austin Hollins are rooted to their starting spots. Even junior point guard Maverick Ahanmisi has thrived, coming off the bench to post a 51% shooting percentage from the floor. Meanwhile, Welch's playing time has plateaued around 14 minutes, brought down by his scoring inconsistencies.
"Everybody wants to play more and that's usually the sticking point in the unhappiness," Smith said. "They usually think they're better than they are, No. 1. They all think they deserve more minutes, which they don't. It's my job to make sure they understand it's a team. The chemistry is a lot better with this group than we've had in a long time."
Welch, who has never publicly expressed any discontent, acknowledges the move has not been easy, but he has kept a level-headed and team-first appearance. If he has lingering frustrations with anything other than his own play, he has been careful not to make them known.
"My role's changed, but when I get in there I still try to do what I did last year, try to be aggressive, try hunting for my shot and eventually they will fall," Welch said.
"It was a little difficult at first, because I wasn't used to it. But now, it is what it is. The group is a lot more important than myself, and we're winning right now and we're ranked, so it is all good."
The Gophers' success and established depth in the backcourt has lessened the impact of Welch's up and down opening stretch. But the senior guard has provided a strong defensive presence needed to bolster the team's second unit -- he has 12 steals on the year. Welch is also a patient distributor with the ball, dishing out 21 assists -- fourth-most on the team.
The key for Welch now is to figure out how to get his scoring touch back.
"Once it starts going it's going to help us out a lot," Smith said. "He's still a very good defensive player ... When you're not, you're spending more time thinking about how can I score versus 'I better do something else. I better improve something else until I am able to score.'"
The sample size is small, but Welch appears to be tracking in the right direction, fresh off his two best outings of the season -- six points, four assists and two steals against USC and seven points on 3-of-4 shooting versus North Dakota State.
Until he can replicate that success on a frequent basis, expect to find Welch perched near the 3-point line.