After negotiating through their first 15 games with a 12-3 mark, the Gophers have certainly caused some to amend their expectations for how this squad, who finished 9-22 a year ago, might finish their season.
Minnesota’s 2-1 mark through three Big Ten contests has fans flowing back into the Barn and the Gophers garnering some national attention as they begin a tough three game stretch against Indiana, Michigan State and Ohio State over the next ten days.
With Twin Cities fans gaining curiosity about Tubby Smith’s squad, whispers from the local media have been that the Gophers have a shot at an NCAA Tournament berth, provided that a few breaks go the Gophers’ way throughout the remainder of their Big Ten slate.
Junior center Jon Williams believes that he speaks for his teammates when he says that he is not surprised with the modest success that the Gophers have enjoyed this season. Williams’ euphemisms about the Gophers’ postseason chances might encourage a raise of an eyebrow or two.
“I honestly think that with this group, we’ve been through so much adversity, I want to see us cut down some nets and win a Big Ten championship,” Williams said. “I think that it’s more than possible for us to get to the [NCAA] Tournament, but we’re capable of more than just that. With our team starting to jell, we feel that we’re capable of some great things. Each guy is like a puzzle piece and we’re starting to figure out how we fit together.”
The jelling of the Gophers this season has had much to do with the falling of the players into Coach Smith’s rotation that includes each player. Although some Gopher opponents have gone six to eight players deep, Coach Smith has shown game after game that he is committed to playing each of his 11 active players.
Fans watching this year are sure to have noticed that Smith has committed to using two waves’ of players that have usually played together. For most of the season, Williams has been a key cog in Wave 2’ of the Tubby rotation that includes freshmen guards Blake Hoffarber, Al Nolen and Kevin Payton along with forward Damian Johnson.
This second group has carved out an identity of hustle that has includes stifling defense and keeping tempo of the game hovering around warp speed. This second group’ is built for Williams, whom opponents have most likely scouted as the Gophers’ most significant defensive inside defender.
“In that group, we definitely feel like we want to get after people. We’re younger in the second group and playing hard sometimes pays off where we [might] lack experience,” Williams said.
Whether it be Williams or one of his teammates, the Gophers in general don’t seem to view Williams’ bunch as a second group,’ but simply as another valuable component of an dynamic Minnesota basketball team.
“We don’t look [ourselves] as the second group.’ As a team, we all look at each other as equals. The first squad obviously deserves to start and they come in with a lot of energy,” Williams said. “While [the starters] are taking their rest, we like to think that we’re taking pressure of them by playing a larger role. We feel good if they are able to get their rest while we are out there pushing the tempo.”
Williams and his brethren in that energetic group have developed a valuable chemistry over the first portion of the Gophers schedule.
“We know the tendencies of the guys we’re used to playing with. We know where each other is going to be, and I think we have a feel for each other,” Williams said. “I feel like I know where Blake [Hoffarber] is going to be at all times on the court. I think that he and I have a good feel for each other even though he’s just a freshman. He knows where I like to be and that has allowed us to [have success.]”
Although it is clear that Williams takes pride in his reputation as a tenacious defender, he cites the coaching change over the past year as one of the chief reasons he has become more effective on the offensive end.
“I think that anybody can play defense. [Defense] is more about being a competitor and will,” Williams said. “Last year, I was less comfortable with the ball [on offense.] This year, the coaching staff has come in and given me the confidence that I can be a factor on offense. Now, if I get the ball on the block and I don’t make an offensive move with the basketball, Coach Smith will probably get on me about that. The coaching staff definitely expects me to be more than a one-dimensional player.”
As Williams’ offensive game evolves to match the level of defensive play he brings to the table, chances grow that Gopher fans may witness this 6’9” 285-pound puzzle piece climbing a ladder with scissors in hand sometime soon.
story by Doug Vose, athletic communications assistant