Tubby Smith isn't quite ready to admit this Minnesota team is playing the best early season basketball of the six he's coached. His squad, however, is making it increasingly difficult to say otherwise.
It's also on the verge of helping Smith achieve a significant milestone.
Smith looks to become the 19th active Division I coach to reach 500 victories Saturday night in Los Angeles, where the 14th-ranked Golden Gophers face struggling USC looking to extend their winning streak to six.
Minnesota (9-1) has gotten off to some fast starts since Smith's arrival in 2007 - winning at least 10 of its first 11 games in all but one of his first five seasons - but there's reason to believe this one may carry a bit more long-term promise.
The Gophers have four players averaging double figures in points, led by sophomore guard Andre Hollins with 13.7, and they're balanced all over the floor. Minnesota is shooting 11.8 percent better than its opponents, averaging 8.6 more rebounds and 4.5 more blocks while outscoring them by 16.1 points per game - all among the top 20 marks in the nation.
Smith's team has bounced back from its loss to then-No. 5 Duke in the Bahamas with impressive victories over Memphis and Florida State, part of a streak it stretched to five with an 88-64 thrashing of 2011 Summit League champion South Dakota State on Wednesday.
The Gophers are starting to look like a serious contender in the loaded Big Ten. Smith, though, isn't sure if this is the best that one of his teams has played early since he landed in Minneapolis.
"It's hard to determine," Smith said. "We have a lot of depth right now and that's the key. We don't have much of a dropoff because you're bringing in a guy like Trevor Mbakwe and bringing in another talented player, Julian Welch. You're bringing in Andre Ingram. So it's the most depth that we've had."
There may not be a more significant player than Hollins, who on Tuesday gave Minnesota a boost in one area it had seriously been lacking. The Gophers came into the game connecting on 29.7 percent of their 3-point attempts - 274th in the nation - but Hollins went 6 of 7 and Minnesota 10 of 22 overall against the Jackrabbits.
"We're all capable of driving. We're all capable of shooting the shots. So I think that's what makes it difficult (for opponents)," said guard Joe Coleman, who finished with 15 points.
USC (3-5) hasn't looked capable of much offensively, shooting 41.5 percent overall while leading scorer J.T. Terrell (12.5 ppg) is connecting on 32.6 percent.
The Trojans shot a season-high 52.9 percent at No. 18 New Mexico on Wednesday, but couldn't hold a 10-point lead in the first half. The Lobos went on a 25-6 run to close the half, the key stretch in handing USC a 75-67 loss.
"That killed us,'' coach Kevin O'Neill said. "We didn't guard anybody. We couldn't guard a lunch in a kindergarten class."
The primary issue for O'Neill's team when it visited Minneapolis last season was on the other end of the floor. USC shot 32.7 percent in a 55-40 loss as Welch paced the Gophers with 16 points and six assists.
This is Minnesota's first trip to Los Angeles to face USC since a 74-67 win in December 1980.
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