Gophers hope Coleman can lead way early

MINNEAPOLIS — At times last year, Gophers freshman Joe Coleman played like, well, a freshman.

Coleman, a standout guard at Hopkins High School, averaged 5.8 points per game along with 1.1 assists and 1.4 turnovers per game in his first year at Minnesota last season. He showed glimpses that he could be a scoring threat — dropping 23 points against Penn State, for example — but wasn’t producing on a consistent basis.

Now a sophomore, Coleman has looked like a different player through two exhibition games. The key word, of course, is exhibition. Still, it’s apparent that Coleman has taken his game to the next level.

“Once again, Joe Coleman came ready to play,” Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said after Monday’s 86-59 exhibition win over Southwest Baptist. “He’s been the most consistent player in practice and he’s showing it in the games.”

With senior forward Trevor Mbakwe still coming back slowly from a torn ACL in his right knee, the Gophers are looking for someone to provide the scoring besides Mbakwe and senior Rodney Williams. A year ago, Mbakwe and Williams were the only two Gophers to average in double-digit scoring — but Mbakwe’s 14.0 points per game came in just seven contests before he tore his ACL.

As a freshman on last year’s team, Coleman didn’t factor into the equation as a scoring threat. But things look different now. After scoring a team-high 21 points in an exhibition win against Minnesota State last Friday, Coleman again paced the Gophers with a game-high 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting in 23 minutes Monday.

“Whatever I can do to help the team. If it is scoring, if it’s rolling for me, I’ll just continue to do that,” Coleman said. “Last year, I scored a lot. I’d say more my free throw shooting was kind of down last year. If I focus in on that, it should help my scoring.”

Coleman got to the free throw line seven times on Monday, making five of seven shots from the charity stripe. A year ago, Coleman was a 72.6 percent free throw shooter.

Asked to evaluate his play Monday, Coleman quickly noted that he had things to work on. Among them: his three turnovers, which were tied for the most on the team in the victory.

“I think a little bit of the decision making, but they were decisions for the right reasons. I was trying to get my teammates involved,” Coleman said. “Other than that, I think I played pretty well.”

Against Southwest Baptist on Monday night, most of Coleman’s scoring came in the first half. He had 10 points at halftime on 4-of-5 shooting and added two assists, two steals and two rebounds at the break. Coleman played just eight minutes in the second half as the game was well out of reach for the visiting Bearcats.

When Coleman has been on the floor so far this preseason, he’s looked like a much more confident player than he was a year ago. He’s been aggressive to the basket, has been able to draw fouls and has found the scoring touch that he had at Hopkins when he averaged 21.5 points per game as a senior.

“He’s being aggressive. That’s how he was in high school, and that’s what we expected from him,” Mbakwe said of Coleman. “We’re going to need that scoring from him and that aggressiveness. He gets to the free throw line and makes his free throws. He’s playing with a lot of confidence. We’re going to need that going forward.”

Added Smith: “He’s gotten stronger, a year older, having played in the Big Ten. He’s got 30-some games under his belt. … He’s a kid that’s committed. Not that the rest of them aren’t, but he’s really a guy that puts in the energy and the effort and the time.”

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