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Gophers Start Season With 3 Point Guard Candidates

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Success for most basketball teams starts at the point guard position, and Tubby Smith is well aware of that after 20 years as a major college head coach.

He only has to think back a few months for a prime example.

After senior Al Nolen hurt his foot in January and was unavailable the rest of the way, the Gophers lost 10 of their final 11 games to finish 17-14 without a postseason tournament. Smith’s remedy, to move Blake Hoffarber over from his shooting guard spot, robbed the Gophers of their best shooting guard. He acknowledged Thursday that he should’ve kept Hoffarber in his natural role and turned over the offense to Maverick Ahanmisi, then a true freshman.

“In hindsight, that’s easy. I wish I had that while it was going on,” Smith said.

This time around, Ahanmisi is a sophomore in a three-way competition for the starting job. Junior college transfer Julian Welch and freshman Andre Hollins are also getting long looks, and all three of them could see significant playing time.

Welch is a 6-foot-3 junior who averaged 19 points and five assists per game last season at Yuba Community College in his native California. He was the Big West Conference Freshman of the Year at UC Davis the season before that.

Welch had a couple of other scholarship offers, from UNLV and St. Mary’s, but he wanted to play for Smith and was drawn by what he described as a family atmosphere surrounding the program on his official visit.

“Once Minnesota got interested, I pretty much cut everybody else out,” Welch said.

Ahanmisi showed some spunk last season, starting five games after Nolen got hurt, though he didn’t score much. The 6-foot-2 sophomore with the faux-hawk haircut brings Big Ten experience to the competition the others don’t yet have.

“People say I might have the upper edge just because I was here last year, but I’m taking it as I don’t have a spot yet. That spot is wide open. I’m going to compete for that spot just like they’re going to compete for that spot,” Ahanmisi said.

Then there’s Hollins, a consensus top-100 recruit from Memphis, Tenn., who could emerge as the front runner despite his freshman status. Smith said he wouldn’t hesitate to start a first-year player at such a key position, just like he didn’t with Rajon Rondo at Kentucky a few years ago.

“Coach has a lot of expectations for me, and it’s up to me to live up to those expectations,” said the 6-foot-1 Hollins, who had a grade-point average above 4.0 in high school and scored a 28 on his ACT.

“It should be exciting. We’re going to make each other better, so when we get out there in the game whoever starts is going to be ready,” Hollins said.

Smith raved about the attitude and effort Hollins and 6-foot-4 shooting guard Joe Coleman, who hails from local powerhouse Hopkins High School, have already brought to the program

“I can’t say enough about just how committed and dedicated those two guys are,” Smith said, adding: “I don’t think we’ve recruited two better people, maybe in my coaching career. I’m just telling you that right now based on what we’ve seen early on. They’re everything and more that I expect.”

NOTES: Two players aren’t yet ready for action, junior power forward Andre Ingram and sophomore center Maurice Walker. Ingram, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Butler Community College in Kansas, had hip surgery this summer. Walker, who had surgery to repair a torn posterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee suffered last December, is still working his way back from that injury. … The Gophers start the regular season at home against Bucknell on Nov. 11. They host Bemidji State in an exhibition game on Nov. 1.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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