Minnesota coach Tubby Smith hopes his team’s most recent defensive effort is a sign of things to come as the Big Ten season approaches.
The 22nd-ranked Golden Gophers tune up for conference play with a three-game homestand against inferior competition, starting Saturday with their first matchup against Eastern Kentucky in 33 years.
Playing its final road game before league play opens against Wisconsin on Dec. 28, Minnesota (8-1) defeated St. Joseph’s 83-73 on Wednesday. During a 13-0 second-half run after their lead was trimmed to 38-37, the Golden Gophers held the Hawks to 0 for 3 from the field with a turnover.
“The key is defense,” Smith said. “You get stops and it creates opportunities.”
Smith’s team had 10 steals for a second straight game and limited the Hawks to 36.2 percent from the field, the fifth time in seven games it held the opposition under 38 percent.
The Gophers won their last game at Williams Arena - 71-66 over Cornell last Saturday - but they gave up a season-high 14 3-pointers.
In Minnesota’s previous home game, Virginia hit 10 of 13 from long range in an 87-79 victory Nov. 29 to end the Golden Gophers’ 30-game home unbeaten streak against non-conference opponents.
“That was probably as pathetic an effort defensively as we’ve had in a long time,” Smith said after the loss.
The Golden Gophers will look for better perimeter defense in this matchup against an Eastern Kentucky team hitting an Ohio Valley Conference-best 40.2 percent from beyond the arc.
The Colonels (5-4), who have lost their last nine road games to ranked opponents by an average of 31.4 points, arrive in the Twin Cities following Wednesday’s 95-45 victory over Kentucky Christian.
Senior forward Spencer Perrin had a team-high 16 points, making all eight of his field-goal attempts, while guards Josh Daniel and Joshua Jones each scored 15. Daniel and Jones combined to make seven of the team’s season-high 12 3-pointers, and coach Jeff Neubauer’s team shot 55.7 percent from the field.
That kind of outside shooting could be a major problem for the Golden Gophers, whose last three opponents have shot a combined 44.0 percent (33 of 75) from 3-point range.
With starter Al Nolen sidelined indefinitely by a foot injury, Smith will look for continued production from Devoe Joseph.
Suspended for the first six games of the season for a violation of team rules, Joseph hit four 3s and scored a team-high 19 points Wednesday in his first start since last season’s NCAA tournament.
Blake Hoffarber, averaging a team-high 15.1 points, should be in the starting lineup despite spraining his ankle after hitting a 3 to end the first half Wednesday. He finished with 14 points while hitting 4 of 6 from long distance.
Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe, who had 12 points and 16 rebounds in each of the last two games, already has more double-doubles this season with six as any Minnesota player since Kris Humphries had 16 in 2003-04.
Minnesota, 8-2 all-time against Ohio Valley teams, defeated the visiting Colonels 61-59 in the teams’ only meeting Nov. 28, 1977.
As Kentucky coach from 1997-2007, Smith went 5-0 versus Eastern Kentucky.