Smith, Gophers may stick with lineup tweaks made in defeat of Penn St.
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MINNEAPOLIS -- When Gophers coach Tubby Smith went with a starting lineup featuring all four of his seniors, along with junior Austin Hollins, Saturday against Penn State, he wasn't thinking of it as a long-term possibility.
It was supposed to be a one-time nod to the seniors in their final game at Williams Arena.
But after the starting five was surprisingly effective in the Gophers' 73-44 rout of the Nittany Lions, Smith may have come across a combination that could see increased minutes as the regular season concludes with games at Nebraska and Purdue.
Smith said after practice Tuesday he hadn't fully settled on a lineup for the Gophers' match-up with Nebraska on Wednesday, but the group has been getting steady reps in practice this week, making it likely it will stay intact.
"Those guys that we started played extremely well together, so they may get the nod tomorrow. I haven't really decided yet," Smith said.
The reconfigured lineup, which featured Hollins, Julian Welch, Rodney Williams, Andre Ingram and Trevor Mbakwe, was a departure from the typical five Smith has rolled out for much of the year.
In place of sophomore guard Andre Hollins, Welch stepped into a starting role for the first time since he started 21 of 36 games last season. Austin Hollins shifted to the two-guard spot, allowing Rodney Williams to move out of his usual role at power forward and to the wing to fill Joe Coleman's position. In the post, Ingram started his first game of his career, while Mbakwe stayed at center.
The unit totaled 41 points, 36 of the team's 46 rebounds and 14 assists. With Andre Hollins and Coleman coming off the bench, the Gophers received a stronger than usual boost when Smith went to his reserves. The Hollins-Coleman duo totaled 22 points.
Although Penn State didn't provide much in terms of being a challenging adversary, the continuity and success brought on in the wake of the lineup changes was enough to make a case for Smith to keep with what worked.
"We were able to shut down their best players in (D.J.) Newbill and (Jermaine) Marshall, and the reason was that we probably had our best defensive team on the court," Smith said. "Andre Ingram is one of our better, if not our best, post defender."
By inserting Ingram into the post, Williams was freed up to be used more around the perimeter - a role he hasn't played much since being shifted to power forward last season when Mbakwe was injured. Williams played loose, even with his strained shoulder still recovering, as he easily put up 10 points, seven rebounds and four assists. It also gave the Gophers a bump in size on the wing.
"(Williams is) better suited on the perimeter and he played that way in that game, and that made us bigger," Smith said. "When we play Joe (Coleman) at the three we are not as tall. We're usually giving up two or three inches at the position every game."
Smith has backed Coleman's spot in the starting lineup all season, but the sophomore guard ended up playing one of his better games of Big Ten play coming off the bench for the first time in his last 40 games. He was relaxed when he was on the court, keeping himself settled in en route to 12 points (5-of-7 from the floor) -- his highest scoring output in eight games.
Ingram doesn't provide much of a scoring presence in the post, but his defensive skills complemented well with Mbakwe's explosiveness.
Welch's reemergence as a legitimate threat was one of the key elements to come out of the reconfigurations. Welch has had difficulties adapting to the move from everyday starter to situational reserve. After averaging 9.5 points per game last year, the 6-foot-3 guard hadn't broken double-digits in a game this season until tagging Penn State for 10 points to go with a game-high seven assists.
"You earn minutes in practice. He's been practicing well. He's been playing with the right attitude," Smith said. "That's been one of my concerns with him all year long, so his attitude has gotten better and he's gotten more playing time."
Welch had the look of a player infused with new energy when he returned to his old, familiar spot.
"I was way more comfortable," Welch said. "It felt more like last year, so it was definitely a good experience."
The Gophers have been lacking on a secondary point guard behind Andre Hollins. Welch and Maverick Ahanmisi have been used interchangeably, with neither one establishing himself as the clear-cut option. But Welch has the possibility of being that guy in the stretch run of the season.
Even if Welch does start against Nebraska, it won't keep Hollins off the court. Hollins, the Gophers' leading scorer (14.1 ppg), is crucial to the success of Smith's current team.
However, if Welch can replicate the performance he had last Saturday, the Gophers can continue to periodically use Hollins off the ball. In turn, that takes some of the strain off the sophomore guard, who had been shooting 28% in his previous seven games before a selective and effective outing against Penn State (3-of-5 from floor, 3-of-4 from long-range).
Whatever lineup the Gophers end up with on Wednesday, they have an opportunity to build on the rising momentum gained after two of their best all-around victories of the season. With fifth place in the Big Ten out of their grasp, they are contending primarily with Illinois for the sixth spot in the conference, and a shot at 10-8 record.
Trevor Mbakwe came back to his locker after his game-changing 21-point, 12-rebound performance in the Gophers' upset of No. 1 Indiana last week to find a familiar face waiting for him.
Gophers football coach Jerry Kill came up to Mbakwe and, in a very enthusiastic manner, was one of the first to congratulate him.
"He's a fiery guy. He's high on emotion. After the game, he made me want to play football," Mbakwe said with a smile. "He was fired up. He was pumped up. His face was all red. He was telling us that it was a big game for us and that he was happy for us."