MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -When Tubby Smith came to Minnesota, he saw in his new team a group of players beaten down by failure.
They were carrying the weight of a school-record 22 losses, and no doubt some felt responsible for the firing of coach Dan Monson early last season and the university's subsequent decision not to retain well-liked interim coach Jim Molinari.
With nearly every player returning from that team, Smith had plenty of work to do to rebuild their confidence and rekindle their love of the game.
Six games into his tenure, the Gophers are taking baby steps in the right direction.
With a schedule softer than a pillowtop mattress and a renewed focus on defense, the Gophers (5-1) are off to their best start in five years.
They have beat up on Army, Iowa State, Central Michigan, UC-Riverside and North Dakota State and taken their lumps at Florida State, but senior Lawrence McKenzie said there is no reason to snicker at the weak schedule.
``It's the same schedule as last year, but we were losing some of these games,'' McKenzie said.
The Gophers started last season 2-6 and also lost an exhibition game in Williams Arena to Division II Winona State during a season that was one of the low points in the program's proud history.
This year they have done what a Big Ten team is supposed to do: squash the smaller guys. Including two exhibition games, their average margin of victory is more than 27 points a game, including a 10-point win at Iowa State.
For Smith, the confidence gained from performances like those outweigh any second-guessing about the strength of the opponent.
``We're trying to instill that in our guys,'' Smith said. ``There are going to be nights where you're not going to shoot the ball well, but when you win, you get a lot more confidence.
``It's a better teacher than losing. You can really get a lot more done. Guys are energetic, enthusiastic when they come off a win versus a loss. And they see that they're successful.''
Smith brought with him from Kentucky an aggressive defensive system and an up-tempo offensive style that the Gophers have embraced to hide their shortcomings, which include a lack of athleticism and shooting touch.
``If you're not skilled enough offensively, defensively you can make up for it with hustle and sheer determination and effort,'' Smith said. ``We feel like we have to overachieve.''
The Gophers have home games against Colorado State on Saturday, South Dakota State and Santa Clara before heading out to Las Vegas for a three-game tournament that precedes Big Ten play.
They know they're going to need all the bravado they can muster when they open conference play at Michigan State on Jan. 5.
``It's a big learning experience. Everyone's still learning,'' senior Dan Coleman said. ``I think we have a lot of growth to go through still as a team. But we're making strides to get there.''
McKenzie really started seeing the progress after a 75-61 loss at Florida State on Nov. 27. Rather than wallow in self pity, the Gophers went back to work and followed with easy wins over Riverside and the Bison.
``That was very important,'' McKenzie said. ``A team like us coming off a season like we did last year, I think one loss can make the whole team lose confidence.''
The real test won't come until the Big Ten season starts, but for a team rebuilding from disaster, the Gophers will take every win they can get.
``You definitely want to build a lot of momentum in these games going into the Big Ten season so you can come out with confidence,'' McKenzie said. ``It's definitely a goal to come in with confidence in these first couple Big Ten games.''

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