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A new day dawns for Minnesota hoops under Tubby Smith

MINNEAPOLIS - There's a new sheriff in town. This time, there was no need for the individual to make that boastful pronouncement. The only requirement was to watch Tubby Smith's team play its first game to be grateful for his authoritarian presence.

MINNEAPOLIS - There's a new sheriff in town.

This time, there was no need for the individual to make that boastful pronouncement. The only requirement was to watch Tubby Smith's team play its first game to be grateful for his authoritarian presence.

The Minnesota Gophers basketball crowd has been dwindling for eight years, as Dan Monson transformed Williams Arena from a madhouse to a mausoleum. He did this by producing teams that for the most part hogged the ball, ignored defense and came to accept defeat.

Admit that this is your snapshot of the Monson Era: Kris Humphries being triple-teamed in the post and refusing to give up the ball.

Mercifully, Monson was fired seven games into last season. Jim Molinari couldn't clean up the mess, and the Gophers finished 9-22, with more losses than any team in 112 years of Minnesota basketball.

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Smith met those carryovers from all that losing for the first time in April. He made a promise to them that they would be in better shape and play harder than at any time in their lives.

He wasn't lying.

Two players who were at that initial meeting didn't make it to Saturday's opener: Bryce Webster, who didn't like his surroundings at the university and quit before practice started; and Brandon Smith, who was invited to leave the team last month.

The survivors of Tubby's first preseason regimen were on display against Army on Saturday afternoon.

We now know this: The publicity for the past decade about a new, more mobile Army does not apply to the basketball team from West Point.

The Black Knights of the Hudson spent the afternoon waiting to spring when the nearest Gopher already was off the floor, and in starting to reach when a Gopher already had dashed past and grabbed the ball.

The Gophers' advantage in athletic ability was substantial, but what was impressive was this: The remnants of the losingest team in Gophers' history also played harder than coach Jim Crews' future military leaders.

The lead was 48-32 with 17½ minutes remaining in the second half. Victory was already secure, and yet Smith's players became more relentless rather than more relaxed.

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They held Army scoreless for more than 9 minutes - until Curtis Koszuta made a free throw with 7:53 remaining.

Once that free throw was made, Jamal Abu-Shamala made a three to put the Gophers' lead at 66-33. A moment later, the ball was slipping away from a Cadet and the Gophers' Damian Johnson (the afternoon's best player) went diving for possession.

The ball stayed loose and two more Gophers hit the deck. There was an appreciative roar as the home team gained possession.

The crowd was announced at 11,529, and that appeared to be generous by perhaps 1,000. A year ago, the crowds for nonconference games were being announced in the low ten-thousands, and university officials were lying by 3,000 or more.

Clearly, Smith's presence created a modest increase in interest for the start of the season. And if what was witnessed on Saturday - multiple Gophers diving to the floor in games with a 30-pount margin - becomes the norm, then Tubby could have the ancient arena filled to the rafters by the time Indiana arrives in mid-January.

Saturday's final was 84-52. Army shot 35.2 percent from the field and committed 25 turnovers - all because Gophers defenders were playing belly-to-belly on the Cadets.

Correct that: These Gophers don't have bellies anymore. The big men, Spencer Tollackson and Jonathan Williams, both are slimmer versions than a year ago. And Dan Coleman, always blessed with an excellent basketball frame, looked absolutely sleek.

Coleman (16 points) was alone among the three senior starters in making an offensive contribution. Tollackson took six shots and scored six points. Guard Lawrence McKenzie, limited by a groin injury, went 0-for-5 from the field (seven shots below last season's average) and made two free throws for his only points.

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No matter.

Tollackson and McKenzie - Spencer with four blocks, Lawrence with pressure on the perimeter - were part of a hardnosed defensive effort.

Welcome, Sheriff. It looks like it might be fun again inside our favorite Barn.

Reusse writes for the Star Tribune (Minneapolis).

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