MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - The Minnesota Gophers came home with plenty of confidence after beating some big-name teams in a tropical tournament over the weekend.
Coach Tubby Smith is doing his best to keep his players from getting too comfortable.
The Gophers cracked the national rankings this week at No. 15, as high as they’ve been since their run to the Final Four in 1997. Beating Western Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament helped them improve to 5-0, but the season has barely begun.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it certainly can be destroyed in a short period of time if you don’t work at your game,” Smith said Tuesday.
The Gophers played last weekend without suspended junior guard Devoe Joseph, one of their best and most versatile players. Smith said he’s unsure if he’ll clear Joseph to play North Dakota State on Wednesday.
“I don’t know when we’re going to see him. I’ve got to do some evaluation of what he did academically last week,” Smith said.
Junior forward Trevor Mbakwe, finally able to participate after a legal tangle kept him off the court all last season, has stepped in as the team’s most complete and most consistent player. Mbakwe was named the Big Ten’s Co-Player of the Week after averaging 15.3 points and 8.7 rebounds over the three games in Puerto Rico.
“He’s got the physique. He’s got the mental toughness. He’s got the physical toughness,” Smith said. “I think he gets the most out of his athleticism.”
Mbakwe and backup big man Colton Iverson have given the Gophers a tough-guy presence around the basket, with 6-foot-11 junior Ralph Sampson III complementing their work with his finesse game around the free-throw line. Seniors Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber are anchoring the backcourt.
“It’s great to win the Puerto Rico tournament, but we’ve got our eyes set on bigger things,” Mbakwe said. “We want to win the national championship, Big Ten championship. That’s just a great start. It’s good to say we won it, but it’s on to the next thing now.”
Depth might be Minnesota’s biggest attribute. Smith has called this his deepest team since he’s been here. He likes to substitute five at a time, and his second unit _ featuring Iverson and freshmen Maurice Walker, Austin Hollins, Chip Armelin and Maverick Ahanmisi, plus Joseph _ gives the starters quite a run in practice.
“With Devoe in there, they’re probably better than our first group,” Smith said. “I like it that way. I like guys getting better. If guys aren’t performing, they know we’ve got someone else to plug in.”
“Think this group of guys, they’re really mature,” Hoffarber said, adding: “I think they’re getting the message that we can’t be satisfied with how we played last game.”
Smith’s trapping defense and screen-based offense rely on toughness, a trait the Gophers have tried to recruit since he took over. It showed in their win over scrappy West Virginia Sunday in the championship game.
“We didn’t back down,” Mbakwe said.