MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Losing a player with the potential to lead the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding can’t possibly be construed as a helpful development. Minnesota has been unquestionably weakened by the loss of Trevor Mbakwe to season-ending surgery on his right knee.
But the Gophers, at least during their first week without him, showed their resourceful side. The moves made by coach Tubby Smith and his staff were by necessity, but they might have opened some new avenues of production.
“I’m very impressed, very pleased, with our effort overall because we’re getting quality minutes from each individual player,” Smith said Monday.
He added: “I’ve said it from the beginning. I thought this was a very coachable team. I think they enjoy each other’s company. I know I enjoy their company. And they’re doing the right things off the court as well.”
Though Smith said the same at the start of last season, before the Gophers lost 10 of their last 11 games, those are important attributes toward a team’s ability to withstand the absence of such a critical player. Ralph Sampson III, the off-and-on center, has been missing as well. Their third-leading scorer from 2010-11 sat out the past two games because of a sprained left ankle.
“It means a lot just to know that without Trevor and Ralph that we can still compete and get after it,” guard Julian Welch said. “We’re going to be a real good team once Ralph gets back.”
Minnesota (8-1) hosts Appalachian State on Tuesday. Smith said Sampson could play.
“He looked like he’s moving a lot better,” Smith said.
Freshman Elliott Eliason has been a capable replacement, bringing a scrappy spirit and a stronger 6-foot-11 presence in the post. He had 12 points and 16 rebounds over the past two games, home victories over Virginia Tech and USC.
He fouled out of Saturday’s game, but Smith said he wasn’t worried. He’d rather have Eliason’s relentless attempt to set screens away from the ball and play tough defense around the basket than teach him to be more careful.
“He’s a very active player. That’s the way he is in practice. We’ve got enough bodies. You just never want to take away his aggression from him,” Smith said.
Welch moved into the starting lineup when Mbakwe went down to give the Gophers a three-guard attack with freshman Andre Hollins and sophomore Austin Hollins. Maverick Ahanmisi, Chip Armelin and Joe Coleman are the energy-providers off the bench.
This young group must still prove it can successfully defend the 3-pointer — and make some when it counts. Turnovers will have to be a lot lower, too, once the conference season starts. They had 18 against USC.
But so far the Gophers have been able to open up their offense with the smaller lineup, giving them a greater opportunity to dribble and drive rather than getting mucked up in the middle as they did so many times last season when they couldn’t get the ball to Mbakwe.
Welch, a junior transfer, has 33 points and 10 assists in the past two games. Smith said he would’ve started him right away ahead of Andre Hollins, but he was bothered by a sprained ankle last month.
“Knowing that I’ll be able to play more minutes, it just lets me know that I can actually play my game and not have to worry about coming out if I make a mistake or something like that,” Welch said. “So it helps a lot.”
When Welch can move the ball or take it to the hoop, that’s a benefit for Rodney Williams, Minnesota’s newest power forward. The super-athletic junior has lacked confidence and consistency throughout his career, but he might have finally found a position he’s comfortable at thanks to Mbakwe’s injury.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot of mismatches,” said Williams, who has 26 points, 17 rebounds, six steals and five blocks over the last two games.
Last season, Williams moved to the shooting guard spot when Blake Hoffarber replaced the injured Al Nolen at point guard, leaving three positions out of sorts instead of one. This time, the Gophers appear capable of better withstanding a big blow, even though Mbakwe was a better player than Nolen.
Smith praised Williams, suddenly the team’s most experienced player, for returning to school this season in the best shape of his life.
“He’s showing that stamina and endurance because we certainly need him on the court. He’s a very steadying factor,” Smith said.
Yes, moving on from Mbakwe hasn’t been easy, but the season’s not going to stop for the Gophers.
“You’re not trying to be harsh, but you say, ‘You know? There’s nothing we can do about that. It’s going to be an opportunity for the rest of you guys to embrace this challenge and step up your game and play better,’” Smith said.
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