MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Tubby Smith drew some criticism in his first five seasons in Minnesota for a substitution pattern that often looked more like a hockey philosophy.
He would run groups of five players in and out, playing his starters almost the same amount of minutes as his bench players.
Now that he has a talented, versatile starting group that believes it can play with any team in the nation, Smith is taking an entirely different approach. He's riding his most talented players hard this season, a strategy that has taken Minnesota to the No. 9 ranking and a highly anticipated game against No. 5 Michigan on Thursday night.
In the first four Big Ten games, guard Julian Welch is the only reserve playing more than 10 minutes a game. Three starters are averaging at least 30 minutes, with point guard Andre Hollins' 28.5 the lowest number.
"As you get into conference play, there's going to be tighter games and better athletes," Smith said Wednesday. "So you want your better athletes in the game at the same time. I don't have somebody measuring. This isn't Little League where everyone is going to play so many minutes."
Gophers starters have accounted for 87 percent of the team's scoring, with Hollins leading the way at 19 points per game in the conference. The biggest producer off the bench has been Oto Osenieks at just 2.5 points per game.
So far, the imbalance hasn't been much of an issue. The Gophers won at Illinois last week even though they didn't get a single point from their reserves. But in the rugged Big Ten, where foul trouble and injuries await with every collision under the basket, Minnesota's depth is sure to get a test sooner or later.
"I think we can hold it up," senior starter Rodney Williams said. "And then when he's ready to go to the bench, we know we've got guys that are ready to come off the bench as well."
Where the Gophers appear to be most thin is the front court. Williams and Trevor Mbakwe are getting all the minutes, while big man Maurice Walker has been slow to come back from a knee injury and center Elliott Eliason has been inconsistent behind them. In such a physical conference, it will be key for Mbakwe, who at 6-foot-8 is an undersized starting center, to stay out of foul trouble.
Backup point guard Maverick Ahanmisi hit a couple of 3-pointers against Indiana, an encouraging sign for a second unit that has been lacking offensive punch to this point. He said going against the Gophers' talented starters in practice should have them ready once the games begin. They're trying to pattern themselves after the Los Angeles Clippers' reserves, widely considered the best bench in the NBA.
"We're playing against the first group all the time, so we're going to push them because that's going to make them better. That's going to help us out, too," Ahanmisi said. "The other day, coach said we play like the Clippers. So I think that was a big part of what we do as a second group, coming in and pressuring the ball and things like that, also in practice helping the starting five bring their intensity as well."
The Wolverines have used their athleticism and playmaking on the perimeter to get off to a 16-1 start, winning their first three Big Ten games before falling to rival Ohio State last weekend. The game will feature two of the best players in the conference in Hollins and Wolverines point guard Trey Burke in what is expected to be a rowdy Williams Arena. Burke scored 30 points to beat the Gophers in the Big Ten tournament last season and Hollins is ready for a rematch.
"I look forward to going against great players," Hollins said. "I don't get too caught up in it, but at the same time it's like I have something to prove at the same time. It's going to make me better in the long run so I just take the challenge to go out and compete."
Hollins knows he's going to need plenty of help if the Gophers are going to bounce back from a loss at Indiana. And it may have to come from the backups.
"We know our bench is important," Hollins said. "Everybody's going to be expected to play 100 percent. Coach Smith has 100 percent trust in our bench and I do also. We trust in each other."
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this story.