Sandell: Strong road trip has Gophers looking like a legitimate threat
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A thick layer of warranted skepticism has been built up around the underperforming Gophers men's basketball team after two consecutive seasons without an NCAA tournament bid.
But eight games into the still-young season, the hesitation to accept that the Gophers have begun to transform into a legitimate threat to contend for a top spot in the Big Ten has faded.
Tubby Smith's veteran Gophers squad is for real.
Don't start dreaming about a deep run in March yet, but the 7-1 Gophers have the makings of a team that can temper some of the disappointments from the first five seasons of Smith's tenure at Minnesota.
The Gophers proved as much on Tuesday by following their commendable showing at last weekend's Battle 4 Atlantis tournament with a commanding 77-68 victory over reigning ACC tourney champion Florida State.
The match-up had the makings of a letdown game.
The Gophers left the Bahamas for Tallahassee with a surge momentum. After a 4-0 start against mid-level competition, the Gophers received a reality check of sorts last Thursday against a superior Duke team, which is now ranked No. 2 in the country. However, they rallied with wins against Memphis and Stanford, highlighted by standout performances from guard Andre Hollins and forward Trevor Mbakwe.
But fatigue had to be somewhat of a concern, given that Tuesday marked the Gophers' fourth game in six days. A true road game, after seven days already spent away from home, was a dangerous proposition, especially against an opponent expected to finish in the upper crust of the ACC this season. There was also the question of how they would respond after being festooned with a No. 21 ranking in the AP's latest poll.
All of that didn't seem to matter to the Gophers. What resulted was an impressively methodical beat down of Florida State. The aggressive, defense-first style Smith's team has adopted this season was on full display. The Seminoles were flustered early on and never recovered, managing only 25 points in the first half.
For the seventh time this season, the Gophers received scoring from nine or more players. At the core of that depth is the foursome of senior forward Rodney Williams, Andre Hollins, junior Austin Hollins and sophomore Joe Coleman, all four of whom are nightly double-figure threats. They backed up that distinction up on Tuesday with 55 of the team's 77 points.
Williams has excelled as the face of this year's team, further legitimizing his status as one of the Big Ten's premier players. The ever-consistent senior forward, who has scored no less than 12 points in each game this season, taxed the Seminoles for 14 points and five rebounds, dotted with a trio of SportsCenter worthy dunks.
Nearly one year after tearing his ACL on Nov. 26, 2011, Mbakwe had a quality night (six points, four rebounds) in his follow-up to his 19-point, 12-rebound return-to-form showcase on Saturday against Stanford.
However, it has been learned in the last four weeks that this is a "U" squad that has the luxury to no longer require a double-double from Mbakwe every night, using him instead as a go-to boost off-the-bench.
In the wake of Mbakwe's dominant game Saturday, starting center Elliott Eliason looked ripe for a move to a bench role after recording one point and six rebounds in three games in the Bahamas.
Smith stuck with Eliason, and his refusal to mess with his starting-five was rewarded. Eliason, who can always be relied on to be energetic pillar in the post, made up for his lack of scoring with a team-high 10 rebounds and a pair of blocks to go with four points.
In recent years, the Gophers have struggled when holding leads in key games. But they didn't relent this time, keeping Florida State trailing, by as many as 21 points, from the minute Williams' put-back jam kick-started the night.
It was an emphatic finish to a road trip that has the Gophers heading back to the Twin Cities shouldering a wave of new hype.
At this early juncture in the season, it's easy to be overzealous, one way or the other, with statements about the long-term trajectory of a team. The Gophers have been down this path before. In each of the past two seasons, they have traversed their non-conference schedule with just one loss, only to collapse in Big Ten play. Though injuries forced Smith's hand in both of those years, the Gophers' inconsistencies extended beyond that (uneven scoring, poor finishing, etc.).
That trend appears on the verge of being reversed. Getting a true read on this team won't be possible until they are tested within the conference, but the deepest roster of Smith's Gophers career is playing as such.
The players are well-aware of their expectations this season, and the ramifications of failing to meet them. Anything shy of an NCAA Tournament berth would be marked as a major disappointment and would put Smith's job in serious jeopardy. Even with those stakes in mind, the Gophers have emerged in the season's first month obviously undeterred.
Five games remain before their Big Ten opener against Michigan State, including another challenging road trip to face USC on Dec. 8. The key now for the Gophers is to keep their newfound confidence in-check enough to avoid unnecessary setbacks in their gradual progression.
Missteps will come in Big Ten play. But as the Gophers have shown in several instances so far this year, they are in a condition to weather those hiccups, unlike before.