This year’s Gophers feature enviable depth

MINNEAPOLIS — Is this Gophers team Tubby Smith’s best yet? It’s still early, but it sure appears that way.

Smith has never led Minnesota to a top 10 ranking since becoming the school’s basketball coach in 2007. The highest the Gophers have risen in the polls under Smith was 13th during the 2010-11 season.

That ranking lasted all of one game. Despite beating Cornell by five points at home, No. 13 Minnesota fell to 20th in the polls — and eventually out of the rankings by season’s end. The Gophers went on to miss the NCAA tournament that year thanks to a late-season collapse in which they finished the regular season 1-9.

This year’s Gophers are currently ranked No. 14 in the Associated Press poll, 21st in the USA Today coaches poll and somewhere in between in various power rankings. Scout.com’s Ken Davis puts the Gophers at No. 14 in his latest rankings, while Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated has Minnesota at No. 12.

After improving to 9-1 on Tuesday by beating a South Dakota State team missing its star player, Smith was asked after the game if this is the best any of his Gophers teams has looked at this early juncture in the season.

“It’s hard to determine. We’ve got a lot of depth right now. That’s the key,” he said after pondering the question. “… They really are playing well. The competitiveness in practice, I think, it’s making each guy better.”

Just 10 games into the year, there have been marked improvements by many of Smith’s players from last season to this season. Take sophomore guard Andre Hollins, for instance. After averaging 8.7 points per game as a freshman, he scored 40 points against Memphis in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament. Thanks to his 22 points Tuesday against SDSU, Hollins is now Minnesota’s leading scorer, averaging 13.7 points per game.

Austin Hollins (no relation to Andre), too, has taken his game to another level. The lanky 6-foot-4 guard has increased his stats in nearly every category. His points are up by three a game. He’s now averaging nearly one block per game. He’s improved his rebounding average by more than one per game. And he’s committing fewer turnovers than he did a year ago.

Examples like that can be found all over Minnesota’s roster. Sophomore Joe Coleman is more aggressive than he was a year ago as a freshman and has emerged as another scoring threat. Andre Ingram has contributed more valuable minutes off the bench than he did last year. And senior Rodney Williams, perhaps the most athletic player Smith has had at Minnesota, has asserted himself as a team leader.

Minnesota’s nonconference schedule last season included zero ranked opponents. The Gophers often let some of those nonconference teams — teams they should easily have beaten — hang around for most of the game before pulling away late.

During this year’s nonconference schedule, that hasn’t been the case. The Gophers have faced two ranked opponents, losing to No. 5 Duke before beating No. 19 Memphis. Minnesota had an impressive win on the road against Florida State and edged Stanford in a tournament game. Against the likes of Toledo and Tennessee State and, most recently, South Dakota State, the Gophers have won by large margins. Minnesota hasn’t relented when opposing teams visit Williams Arena.

Just three games remain on Minnesota’s nonconference schedule before it begins the grind of the Big Ten season. Currently, six of the conference’s 12 teams are ranked in the AP top 25. The Gophers are the fifth-highest of those six teams but certainly could climb. They’re just one spot behind No. 13 Illinois.

It’s safe to guess that forward Trevor Mbakwe’s minutes will increase once Big Ten season arrives. The fifth-year senior tore his ACL early last season and still is working his way back to his old form. He’s averaging just 17.1 minutes per game; he played over 30 minutes a night as a junior during the 2010-11 season.

That’s the scary part, though: Minnesota is winning without Mbakwe at his best. He’s come off the bench in every game this season. So far, though, the Gophers haven’t needed him to be the player he was as a junior.

“We don’t have much of a drop-off because you’re bringing in a guy who’s probably going pro in Trevor Mbakwe,” Smith said. “It’s the most depth we’ve had. I don’t know about the best we’ve looked (this early), but it’s good to have that luxury of (bench players) that to come in and give a big boost.”

Minnesota has missed out on the NCAA tournament each of the past two years. The last time the Gophers were in the big dance, they lost to Xavier by 11 in the first round. In fact, Smith has yet to win an NCAA tournament game while at Minnesota.

There’s little doubt the 2012-13 Gophers are a tournament team. Just how far they can go in it is the real question.

“We’ve got one of the best teams that has been in this program in a while,” Williams said. “We want to go out there and represent.”

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