Minnesota put together one of its best defensive performances of the season in its last game despite missing one of its top defenders.
With Al Nolen expected to miss another game, the No. 21 Gophers will try to win their fourth in a row when they host Akron on Wednesday night.
Minnesota (9-1) has played the last four games without Nolen, who has been sidelined since tests last month revealed an old stress fracture in his foot. He's been fitted with an orthotic in his shoe to help relieve the pressure and pain.
Nolen said he wouldn't be ready in time to help the Gophers take on Akron, but he hopes to play when they host South Dakota State on Dec. 23. If he's not ready by then, Minnesota's next game would be the Big Ten opener at Wisconsin on Dec. 28.
The Gophers' defense has lagged without Nolen, but they have still won three in a row, beating Eastern Kentucky 71-58 on Saturday. The Colonels led 22-13 before Minnesota went on a 30-3 run over a 17-minute stretch bridging the intermission.
"Coach (Tubby Smith) was just emphasizing shutting them down," said Blake Hoffarber, who scored 14 points. "Offense wasn't really clicking, so we've got to win the game playing defense."
It was the kind of effort Smith was looking for since losing Nolen, one of the team's best perimeter defenders. The Gophers were giving up an average of 67.2 points and allowing opponents to shoot 33.9 percent from 3-point range when Nolen was in the lineup, but in their first three games without him, opponents were scoring 75.3 points and shooting 44.0 percent from beyond the arc.
"The beginning of the second half was probably one of the best stretches of defense we've had," Smith said. "I thought it was a good all-around game."
While the defense is trying to improve, Minnesota's offense isn't suffering despite missing Nolen's 9.2 points per game. A big reason for that is the contributions of Trevor Mbakwe.
Mbakwe was one of three players suspended early last season for disciplinary reasons. After missing 2009-10, he's averaging 13.8 points and a team-high 10.2 rebounds.
The lack of off-the-court problems has made it a much more enjoyable start for Smith, whose team won 11 of its first 14 last season.
"I know our team is more relaxed. I think they're playing that way," Smith said. "It's good. Guys know what they're supposed to do, and we don't have all the distractions."
The defense has a good chance to further improve against the Zips, who have averaged 50.5 points while shooting 33.6 percent the last two games.
Akron (4-3) closes its stretch of four straight road games looking for its third win. The Zips are coming off an 82-47 loss to Temple on Sunday.
Akron shot 29.5 percent and trailed 40-15 at the half after shooting 6 of 30 from the field. It was also outrebounded 44-27.
Leading scorer Nikola Cvetinovic was held to a season-worst five points, shooting 2 of 8. He came in averaging 14.8 points and shooting 50.0 percent.
Minnesota won 86-59 in 1991 in the only previous meeting between these schools.