Stifling defense key to early-season success
NOV 15, 2012 9:28p ET
MINNEAPOLIS — It's hard to judge the Gophers too much on three early wins over non-conference opponents, including Thursday's 72-43 rout of Tennessee State. All three have been games that Minnesota should win handily, and the Gophers have certainly done so.
But Minnesota senior Rodney Williams said one thing stands out from the way his team has played thus far: Defense.
"I'm just learning that we're a bunch of competitors out there. We're holding it down on defense," said Williams, who had a team-high 15 points in Thursday's win. "That's what Coach (Smith) preaches to us all the time — defense, defense, defense. What I see from us is that we're just a real good defensive team and we're taking what the D is giving us on offense, no matter how bad we're struggling."
In the regular-season opener against American, Minnesota allowed just 36 points as the Eagles converted only nine field goals. The Gophers improved to 2-0 thanks to an 82-56 win over Toledo in which the Rockets shot 31.1 percent from the floor.
Thursday, Minnesota's defense clamped down once again. The visiting Tigers shot just 23.7 percent for the game (14-for-59) and just 18.8 percent in the second half as the Gophers cruised to another non-conference victory.
Minnesota's offense has held its own through three games, as the Gophers have had a balanced scoring attack. That was again the case Thursday as three players scored in double-figures and all 12 Gophers scored at least one point. But Minnesota's defense is ahead of its offense early in the year.
The key? A sense of continuity on defense as Minnesota returns nearly its entire roster from last year.
"I think the camaraderie we have, we have most of the guys back from last year," said junior Austin Hollins, whom coach Tubby Smith calls the Gophers' defensive leader. "I think it helps knowing where your teammates are going to be, having been in the defense for a whole year and having that practice, and then coming in this season and being able to not have to re-teach everything."
Added Smith: "Because of the chemistry, because they've played together, we've kept that unit together since the last seven, eight games of the season and then into these games. I think that's the big key, the continuity of those guys."
Through three games, Minnesota has 26 blocks and 40 steals. Center Elliott Eliason and backup forward Andre Ingram each had a pair of blocks Thursday versus Tennessee State. Five different players had two steals, and Minnesota grabbed 34 defensive rebounds.
Offensively, the Gophers hit six of their 16 3-pointers, a season high. But it wasn't about the offense Thursday. Once again, defense was the story.
"That's our (goal) to play aggressive defense," said sophomore guard Andre Hollins, who had 13 points along with a team-high five assists Thursday. "Coach is a great defensive coach. … We need to pressure teams, because it's going to get harder from here on out."
Even with star forward Trevor Mbakwe injured for most of last year, the Gophers still led the Big Ten in blocked shots per game and ranked fourth in steals. If these first three one-sided victories have taught us anything, perhaps it's that defense will once again be Minnesota's calling card.
"Our communication has gotten a whole lot better," Williams said of the defense. "Last year, we were scoring points, but we were giving up a lot of points as well. Another thing coach preaches is communication on defense. We've been doing a pretty good job of that so far this year."
Once Mbakwe returns to his old form — he's coming off an ACL injury last year — Minnesota's defense will be even tougher, particularly in the post. Mbakwe was the Big Ten's leading rebounder as a junior and had 45 blocks in 31 games that season.
"A healthy Trevor is bad for any team out there," Williams said.
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