Depth was once considered a real strength of this team but lately the second unit has appeared to be more of a liability than a strength and it leaves me with a number of lingering questions. Why does Tubby insist on a five for five substitution patter? Why not just play the starters more minutes? Why is there a lack of bench talent on this team? Will it prevent us from possibly winning the Big Ten?
Your bench is vitally important, especially in the months of January through March when you are playing 2 or 3 games in a week and all are against conference teams. Some teams are fortunate enough to have a couple guys who are nearly starting caliber players or guys who have starting talent but are just on the younger side. Other teams have to rely on their bench to allow their starters to catch their breath and save their legs for the final stretch in the 2nd half. We are the latter.
I believe that every player has an indeterminable amount of minutes in them where they can play at a very high level before fatigue sets in. At which time their muscles are not firing at full strength, decision making may be affected and they are overall ability to contribute and produce are limited. Everybody has this limit and it varies for everyone. Your best players are the guys you absolutely need to firing at full strength near the end of the game, so it is vital that they get the necessary rest in the first 35 minutes of the game. Your bench players have this limit too, but it is usually a much shorter time.
Back when I was coaching we often had a few guys on the bench that you knew could give you 3 or 4 minutes of solid play. He could go 100% in those short stretches before fatigue set in and then the liabilities which relegated him to the bench in the first place began to surface. It isn't just about conditioning, it is that they can play fast for short a short time while their opponent is either also playing a bench player or the starter is slightly more fatigued. Talented players can play at their high level and make fewer mistakes in spite of a little fatigue. Eventually though, fatigue will win.
The Gopher bench is absolutely necessary for the Gophers to have sustained success throughout the Big Ten. The answer to the lack of bench production is not just playing the starters longer or more. Fatigue will win. Maybe not in that particular game but over the next couple months, fatigue will win. You often only need 3-4 minutes of solid, even if unspectacular, play from your bench to give your starters necessary rest.
Some teams have the luxury of having a bench player who may have an outstanding game and they give your team a significant boost you would otherwise not receive. This particular Gopher bench is unlikely to give said boost, at least with scoring. This unit of five that is receiving the lion's share of bench minutes will give you a boost with defense and rebounding while a couple guys may hit an occasional three. Double-digit points will not likely occur against the top half of the Big Ten.
With all of that said, what tends to over-emphasize our lack of bench production is that Tubby will usually have all five starters on the bench at the same time. This is why I actually really liked Trevor Mbakwe coming off the bench, because when the five bench players were in the game, we still had a legitimate offensive threat. Now with Maverick Ahanmisi, Julian Welch, Oto Osenieks, Andre Ingam and Elliott Eliason you have nobody who can create a shot or who is athletic enough to make a play. So why does Tubby continue with this line change subbing pattern? I don't know. Amelia Rayno has been asked this a couple times and her answer seems to be that he just does and asking why is futile.
In the past I haven't had a problem with this, at least not nearly as much. Why? Because we often had someone on the bench capable of scoring. Lawrence Westbrook coming off the bench for some of his time under Tubby was a good example. Even last year Chip Armelin was capable of providing some punch on both ends. I also can see the value of playing five guys who play everyday together in practice. They get used to each other and learn to work as a unit. Sort of a sum of it's parts theory. But this year's 2nd string crew has really been struggling in Big Ten games. It really isn't hard to stagger your substituting just a little bit. By staggering you might actually be able to give your starters an extra couple minutes of rest because you don't feel pressured to throw all five starter back in when the bench is letting things get out of hand. In my opinion this just takes a little bit of effort.
There will be plenty of games where the bench will be in a better position to succeed than what we have seen the last couple games. Illinois is incredibly athletic and there are nightmare match-ups all over the floor for our bench. This led to a bench stat-line that looked like this; 0 points, 3 rebounds, 7 turnovers, 0 assists and 31 minutes. But other games will be better match-ups and our bench should be able to contribute in a more meaningful way. To be fair the Gopher bench outscored the Indiana bench on Saturday.
Can the Gopher bench get things turned around and become a strength once again? I do believe that we have guys capable of contributing in meaningful ways this year. The issue with this group is athleticism and scoring. I am confident they can defend and rebound in the half-court. But they turn the ball over at alarming rates and scoring is difficult against other Big Ten teams.
These guys do contribute and at times they have made some key plays in Big Ten games. If they can cut down turnovers and if Tubby would be willing to stagger just a little bit, I think the bench returns to being a real strength of this team. It is a long season and the sample size of Big Ten games is small, the bench will bounce back but the sooner it happens the better for everyone.