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Smart, team-oriented basketball has Gophers men off to 6-0 start

Minnesota (6-0) puts its unbeaten streak on the line when it faces Mississippi State (6-1) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss.

MINNEAPOLIS -- The University of Minnesota men’s basketball players haven’t heard it this way, but Ben Johnson has shared a specific phrase to media members a few times this season: “Don’t put the cape on.”

In other words, Minnesota’s first-year head coach doesn’t want his players to try to make Superman-type plays in games. While the Gophers might not have any superhero-type players to begin with, the message about playing smart basketball has resonated.

And the heady play is getting results. The Gophers are one of only 14 teams in the nation, including three in the Big Ten, who are undefeated this season.

Minnesota (6-0) puts its unbeaten streak on the line when it faces Mississippi State (6-1) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss. The Bulldogs are led by 6-foot-3 guard Iverson Molinar (16 points per game) and 6-10 forward Tulo Smith (15.3 points, 9.7 rebounds).

Minnesota’s standouts are wing Jamion Battle and point guard Payton Willis; Battle is averaging a team-high 17.5 points per game, and Willis is right behind at 16.3. The two of them were confused when asked about “capes” two weeks ago.

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“I never heard that one before,” Willis said in late November. “I know a lot of our guys are experienced and take our roles to heart and accept our roles so far.”

At the end of the Pittsburgh game, Johnson drew up a play for E.J. Stephens to get to the rim. Stephen’s shot fell off, but Luke Loewe was there for the game-winning putback with less than three seconds left in a 54-53 road win.

Again, it was a hustle play, instead of hero ball.

Loewe, a fifth-year transfer from Fond du Lac, Wis., has one other game-winner on his career resume, and it came against Battle last season. Loewe’s layup with 12 seconds left in overtime pushed William & Mary over George Washington 85-84 last December.

“Him and I joke about it all the time,” Loewe said. “I think he might have been the one to remind me” after the Pitt game.

Johnson might not use “cape” around his players, but he feels like its a topic that has to be addressed. “I think it’s human nature,” he said. “I think the more confidence a team has, I think, it’s a good thing.

“But as each player becomes more confident, which they should, you don’t want that confidence to drive them the wrong way: ‘Now, I’m confident and I can do it all on my own,’ ” Johnson continued. “You are confident because we got here as a team. Let’s stick to what we are doing.”

Stephens, a transfer from Lafayette, said he has seen comments on Twitter about how different this year’s Gophers team compares to last year’s squad.

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“Just from fans, some people saying they are surprised and love what Coach Johnson is doing for the program and the culture he is setting,” Stephens said. “… In terms of defense, defense rotations and ball movement. It’s good to see, but at the same time that is what we expected coming into the season with all the experienced guys.”

The Gophers are full of veteran mid-major transfers who aren’t concerned about who gets the attention.

“The thing I love about this team is we don’t care who it is,” Stephens said. “There is no ego on this team. Whoever has it going, we look for it to continue to lead us in whatever category that may be.”

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