How is Minnesota playing so well, with essentially the same cast of characters that managed only nine wins a year ago?
"It was a tough situation last year for those kids," notes Indiana's Kelvin Sampson on Monday's weekly coaches teleconference, referring to former coach Dan Monson's departure early last season.
"They always could put the ball in the basket," adds Northwestern's Bill Carmody, speaking on players such as seniors Lawrence McKenzie and Dan Coleman, "but they are older now."
However, the most obvious difference is Tubby Smith, who after two losses last week to Indiana and Michigan State, is still looking for his 400th career victory. The Gophers play at Ohio State this Saturday.
"He commands respect," says Sampson. "Those seniors play hard for him, and they love him."
The second obvious difference is that the Gophers this season is playing defense, bringing back the days of old when Clem Haskins-coached teams made it awfully hard to score on them. Minnesota (33rd) is allowing just under 61 points a game, one of five Big Ten teams ranked among the nation's toughest defenses. Wisconsin (2nd/52.1 ppg), Iowa (14th/58 ppg), Illinois (42nd/61.7 ppg) and Purdue (61.9/49th) are the others.
"Coach Smith always has been known as a defensive coach," Carmody points out. "They (the Gophers) are a little more disruptive (on defense) than they were before."
In other teleconference tidbits:
--Iowa's Justin Johnson hit eight treys against Indiana, which is the 13th best performance in the country thus far this season. "He is a terrific shooter," notes his coach, Todd Lickliter, adding that he is no longer a secret. "More defenses are really keying on him, but it opens up (shots) for others."
--Geary Claxton is lost for the season for Penn State. He suffered a season-ending knee injury, a torn ACL ligament in his left knee, during the first half of last Tuesday's game at home versus Wisconsin. The senior forward, who was second in the Big Ten in both scoring and rebounding, was attempting to rebound his own shot and landed awkwardly on the knee.
"He gave us 16-18 points a game, and 11 rebounds," says Penn State Coach Ed De Chellis of Claxton, who scored 1,542 career points. "He is one of our best defensive players on the perimeter. He's a tough and competitive kid. You will miss a lot of different things (from him)."
--Indiana and Wisconsin are the only Big Ten teams still without a blemish in conference play, both with 5-0 records. The Badgers' Bo Ryan dismissed the annual talk on how tough it is to win on the road. "It doesn't matter whether you are (at) home or away, you got to win," he says, "but it is tough to win away from home."
--Michigan State and Purdue aren't far behind, each with 4-1 league marks. "There is still a lot of basketball left to play," warns MSU's Tom Izzo.
--Michigan Coach John Beilein, when asked to compare the Big Ten to the Big East, where he coached last season at West Virginia, "The Big East maybe is more diverse in the way they play (defense)." Big Ten teams mostly play "in your face" defenses, he adds. As for the coaching, "I don't think there is any difference with the great coaches in the Big East and this league," he says. As for his Wolverines, "We are doing more defensive stuff in practice than I had in a long time. Our defense, as well as our intensity, must improve. We are giving up too many baskets in Big Ten play."
The first year U-M coach also isn't pleased with his team's shooting and overall execution on offense. In other words, Beilein is not happy, period.
--Despite being 0-3 in their last three games, all on the road, Ohio State Coach Thad Matta points out, "In all the games, in certain situations, we played good basketball." He loves coaching frosh Evan Turner: "He has been very coachable and accepting what we want him to do." Matta wants Turner to continue taking care of the ball "and reading situation a little bit better."
--Ohio State's Jamar Butler recently cracked the 1,000-point plateau; he now has 1,024 career points. "He really has been through a lot in this program," says Matta. "He is not a very vocal person but the leadership comes from how he plays." Butler leads the Big Ten in assists (7.60 apg).
--Northwestern's Carmody says no team can be successful in college if you can't hit the three. "An open 3-point shot is better than a closer 2-point shot," he believes. "You have to be able to shoot the ball from that distance. I don't think you can be a very good team if you don't have a (3-point) shot."