Williams expected to return Thursday to struggling 'U' starting lineup
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Until Sunday, Gophers senior forward Rodney Williams had appeared in 95 consecutive games.
That was before a misstep while fighting through a screen in practice last Saturday resulted in Williams straining his left shoulder. While he later said felt he could have played in some capacity, coach Tubby Smith sidelined him as a precaution in the Gophers' home loss to Illinois -- his first time spending a game on the bench since March 12, 2010.
Williams has had his share of struggles in Big Ten play, just like the entire Gophers squad (17-7, 5-6), but his ability to score in transition and provide needed depth in the starting lineup was notably absent against the Illini.
Williams doesn't want experience sitting out again.
The Gophers' second-leading scorer said Wednesday his shoulder is feeling about "85 percent" healthy, but expects to be back on the court Thursday for his team's crucial match-up with Wisconsin (17-7, 8-3) at Williams Arena.
"I definitely feel like I can play tomorrow," Williams said. "I have a little pain, but nothing I can't play through."
After being limited to non-contact drills on Tuesday, Williams was folded back into practice Wednesday, with his shoulder covered with a light brace.
Coach Tubby Smith had yet to make a final decision on whether or not Williams would return to his starting spot right away. With the senior forward out, Smith shifted fellow starter Trevor Mbakwe to power forward and put sophomore center Elliott Eliason back in the starting five.
Recovered from a slump of ineffectiveness that lasted several weeks, Eliason has sprouted up as one of the Gophers' top options defensively, and a key distributor at the top of the key. In his last three games, he has totaled 19 rebounds (6.3 rpg), seven assists and four blocks.
From that perspective, the 6-foot-11, 260-pound Eliason is a pleasing complement to have in the starting lineup. But the Gophers do give up a bit of an edge scoring-wise - he averages 2.4 points per game. As a whole, the Gophers have been hard-pressed to find a jumpstart on offense recently. They have scored 53 points or less in two straight games.
When a team needs to get its offense in gear, a face-off with Wisconsin and Bo Ryan's plodding, slow-it down style is not exactly a recipe for success. In the last meeting between the two rivals, guard Traevon Jackson's last-minute shot sealed a Badgers victory in a 45-44 defensive slugfest.
But after losses in six of their last eight games, the Gophers are at the point that a victory is nearly imperative in getting their season back on track. Part of that relies on getting a sizable increase in offensive production.
Mbakwe was back in double-figures Sunday following four games of averaging 7.2 points. The Gophers placed an emphasis on getting the ball to Mbakwe in the post, and in turn he responded by recording his eighth double-double (13 points, 10 rebounds).
Feeding him the ball frequently on an every game basis has been a primary goal this season, but opponents' tendencies to double-team the senior forward have taken away some of those opportunities. However, Mbakwe and the Gophers' desire to score in or around the paint is a main component in unlocking the offense's capabilities.
"They key in on Trevor. We did a good job getting him the ball against Illinois," point guard Andre Hollins said. "That's been a key from the beginning. We play inside out. We know teams have to pack it in. They're not going to leave the bigs alone. That gives us perimeter players shots. That's one of our keys is feeding the post."
Williams was starting to reestablish a rhythm on offense in his three games before the injury after shooting 24% from the floor (7-of-29) in a previous three-game stretch. When his shoulder flared up, he had to fight off a surge of anger pent up from his battle to be the consistent offensive threat the Gophers could use.
"It definitely made me little mad and more frustrated, but I've got a lot of people behind me," Williams said. "I'm just going to go out there and have fun tomorrow."
Despite Williams not being fully healthy, using him off the bench on Thursday doesn't appear to be a likely scenario. The Gophers are in need of his scoring prowess, regardless of his recent inconsistencies.
Eliason has earned a steady bump in his playing time, and he is almost sure to get it, although it will most likely come in a sixth-man role in relief of Mbakwe.
Signs seem to point to Smith trotting out the familiar lineup of Mbakwe, Williams and guards Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman to face the Badgers.
Smith, however, did not outright deny the possibility of a starting lineup change. Coleman, a starter in all 24 this year, is the lowest scorer of the Gophers' main starting five, and is averaging 6.5 points per game on 36% shooting from the floor - three points off his season-average. Smith acknowledged Coleman, who has been playing through hamstring and ankle trouble all season, could potentially be moved to the bench in an effort to shake up the lineup.
"Joe has been struggling from the outside and, I think, sometimes that affects other parts of your game," Smith said. "But again, Joe is a guy that does some good things for us when he's in there."
"He's a guy that, he never really fully recovered from that ankle sprain, and that's one thing you can see ... He gets treatment, and he practices. But sometimes I wonder if he's going all out, because you know at the beginning of the year he was dunking the ball, he was going to the basket, and that's something he hasn't done of late."
Although moving Coleman isn't highly probable scenario, if the Gophers did so it would mean bringing Eliason in at center, keeping Mbakwe at power forward and shifting Williams to the wing.
Whatever the Gophers end up unveiling Thursday, the necessity of a win remains. Minnesota isn't in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament yet, but a continued slide would make the team ripe for a third straight season on the outside looking in.
In the locker room after the Illinois loss, the "U" players were markedly dejected and responded to questions mostly in mute tones. Any lingering frustration or disappointment was surprisingly hard to sense after practice Wednesday. To their credit, the mood has stayed positive.
"It'd be discouraging if you didn't know what you did wrong, don't know what to do, you just lose and keep losing, " Andre Hollins said. "That's not the case here. We know what we've been doing wrong. We know why we've been losing, why teams have been beating us. We just have to capitalize and limit our mistakes."
It could be a while before guard Wally Ellenson is back on the court. Ellenson has sat out of practice for the last week with a strained left Achilles he suffered Feb. 6 against Michigan State. Originally, the Gophers were projecting the freshman guard would be out one to two weeks. That timetable may be extended.
"I'm disappointed he hasn't been able to run," Smith said. "He hasn't been able to run at all because it's still sore and I thought it would be ready by now. (Team trainer) Roger (Schipper) and the doctors are looking at it, so we'll see."