At Kentucky, Tubby Smith was used to coaching star power. His talent pool may not be as deep in Minneapolis, but it just allows him to get more of the credit for defensive schemes that are quickly taking the Gophers to the top of the Big Ten.
In its latest effort, Minnesota changed defenses enough to baffle a young Ohio State team still reeling from losing its one bona fide veteran. The Gophers went from zone, to man, to a full-court press, flustering the Buckeyes and giving the Gophers their 13th victory in 14 games.
“We run a lot of defenses,” guard Lawrence Westbrook said. “We practice a lot of them. It just depends who we’re playing against.”
Minnesota’s hot start isn’t expected to cool anytime soon. With Iowa and Penn State upcoming during the week ahead, the Gophers should have little trouble running their record to 15-1 before their next real test — at Wisconsin on Jan. 15.
By then, the Gophers should have established themselves as the legitimate surprise team in a quickly improving Big Ten.
The 13-1 start to the season is the best since the Gophers began the 1976-77 season 16-1.
The Gophers have defeated two of the three ranked opponents they have faced this season. Minnesota has wins against Ohio State and Louisville, while falling to Michigan State.
Tubby Smith conceded that the playing time for some of his players would have to be dialed back once the Big Ten season began. But 10 players played at least 10 minutes against the Buckeyes after nine reached double figures in minutes in the conference opener against Michigan State.
Point guard Al Nolen has more assists than turnovers in all but one game this season. But he has five turnovers through the first two conference games after committing just 18 turnovers through the nonconference season.
Damian Johnson has scored in double figures seven times this season entering the Jan. 8 game at Iowa. That is nearly half of the 15 times he has scored in double figures in his career.
Freshman Colton Iverson had four blocks against Ohio State on Jan. 3, the third time this season he had at least four blocks in a game.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — G Lawrence Westbrook, G Al Nolen, F Damian Johnson, F Ralph Sampson III, C Colton Iverson. Key Subs — G Blake Hoffarber, F Paul Carter, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, G/F Travis Busch, G Devoe Joseph, G Devron Bostick.
IN FOCUS: The Hawkeyes started strong, but have shown their youth in struggling through long stretches of ineffectiveness against Ohio State and Indiana. Playing on the road will be difficult, but the Gophers are separating themselves from Ohio State and Iowa as the most legitimate of the surprise teams during the early conference season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “A lot of teams play an eight-man or seven-man rotation, so once we’ve got more fresh bodies, it gives us a better chance to get off and running.” — Forward Damian Johnson, on a Gophers team that routinely plays 12 bodies
Minnesota 82, High Point 56
Michigan State 70, Minnesota 58
Minnesota 68, Ohio State 59
at Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 8
vs. Penn State, Sunday, Jan. 11
at Wisconsin, Thursday, Jan. 15
at Northwestern, Sunday, Jan. 18