Updated: October 24th, 2011 11:14pm
Tubby Smith calls Gophers his best group of shooters in a 'long time'

Tubby Smith calls Gophers his best group of shooters in a 'long time'

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- No returning player on the Gophers men's basketball roster shot higher than 29 percent from 3-point territory last season.

Though stats aside, coach Tubby Smith has expressed no worries about the range of his team this year. Instead, his praise has been surprisingly forthcoming.

"I think it's the best shooting group I've had in a long time," the 60-year-old head coach said on Monday, prior to a rare open practice. "I don't see any issues with the outside shooting at all."

The Gophers' top long-range threats from a year ago, Blake Hoffarber -- the best pure shooter Smith has had in his tenure at the "U" -- and point guard Al Nolen, are both gone. In their place, Smith has inserted newcomers Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman -- both freshman -- as well as junior college transfer Julian Welch.

One week into practice, Smith is already seeing a team-wide difference, not just from his new recruits, in the Gophers' ability to make shots away from the basket.

"We've got guys shooting the ball really well and that's really pleasing because that's an area we've really struggled with last year - with outside shooting."

The flaws of last year's squad were numerous, but the lack of options on the perimeter was a major contributor to the Gophers' season-ending 1-10 skid. When Nolen was lost for the year with a broken foot in January -- only weeks after fiery guard Devoe Joseph decided to transfer -- Hoffarber suddenly became the only reliable outside shooter remaining.

Improvements in that area, which will have to be fairly staggering to live up to Smith's claim, rely heavily on how Welch, Hollins and Coleman progress in the Gophers' system. Smith, however, insists it won't be a problem.

"Absolutely. That's the most impressive thing is that we helped ourselves significantly with the recruitment Andre, Joe and Julian," Smith said. "It's totally different in the attack on the ball."

Based on the stats the team has kept from its scrimmages, Hollins leads the Gophers in 3-point shooting, with Coleman second.

"I knew they could shoot," Smith said of his trio of new guards. "I wasn't sure about Joe, but Joe is one of our leading 3-point shooters -- five-out-of-10. He just takes the right shots and makes good decisions about taking the right shot."

Six-foot-seven redshirt freshman Oto Osenieks is also another added weapon the Gophers can use to take an open three.

Notes

• The starting point guard spot remains up for grabs, leaving an on-going competition among Hollins, Welch and sophomore Maverick Ahanmisi.

"It's friendly, but sometimes it gets rough," Ahanmisi said of the battle for playing time. "At the end of practice we're all friends, but on the court it's a different story."

Smith wouldn't name a frontrunner, but did compliment Welch on several occasions Monday for his control and shooting ability from the point. However, Ahanmisi would seem to be the more likely candidate to start in at least the Gophers' first few games in light of his experience running the offense for Big Ten schedule.

• In an attempt to become more of a mid-range/outside threat, junior forward Rodney Williams Jr. is working on adopting a new shooting style he learned at LeBron James' Skill Academy in July. As Smith pointed out, Williams has a considerable learning curve to overcome.

"He's got a lot of work still to do, let's put it that way," Smith said. "We're still working to improve his shot. He's never really going to be a 3-point shooter. Just to give you an idea, he's 1-for-11 in threes in practice. So, it hasn't improved much."

• Ten months after tearing the PCL and meniscus in his right knee, center Maurice Walker is still at least several weeks away from being game-ready. He has been cleared for light workouts, but is unable to participate in a full practice. Walker's mobility hasn't entirely returned as he could be seen Monday favoring his healthy leg. Smith didn't set a date for his return, though said "there is no rush," given the team's multiple options inside.

• Redshirt freshman Elliot Eliason, who sat out of the team's tip-off event because of a sprained ankle, practiced on Monday with seemingly no problems.

• Junior transfer Andre Ingram is back to practicing after spending the majority of the off-season rehabbing from hip surgery

• Smith and seniors Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III leave Wednesday for Chicago, where they will take part in Big Ten Media Day on Thursday.

• November is a week away and with it comes the start of the season for the Gophers, who open with a pair exhibition games, beginning Nov. 1 against Bemidji State.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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