Gopher basketball is finally here! The exhibition opener is tonight (viewable via streaming only on BTN.com) and then soonafter the 28 game regular season will take off. Fans of Gopher hoops have been treated to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances that have unfortunately resulted in back-to-back first round exits. Tubby Smith and this 2010-11 squad are attempting to do what has never been done in the program's long and illustrious history. Make three consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Hard to believe it has never happened before but we've never been to three in a row and that is what they set out to accomplish beginning tonight. Is this the year we get a high seed and make it out of the first round? Let's take a look and you can decide for yourself (though I may inject my opinion on the matter).
Consider this your 2010-11 TDG Preview!
Before we get into the 2010 season let's take a quick look at what we lost. Damian Johnson, Lawrence Westbrook and Paul Carter combined to account for 39.5% of the Gopher's points and 29.9% of the team's rebounds last season. Losing that much point/rebounding production is typically a pretty big deal and would lead most to believe that this is going to be a down year for the Gophers. And on top of losing those three we lost our only viable backup PG on the roster, Justin Cobbs, to a transfer. To be honest losing Cobbs and Carter are significant enough to note that they are no longer on the roster but neither of them produced nearly enough to warrant any late night anxiety. Carter would certainly be in the primary rotation and would give us a legit PF off the bench but I do not believe his transfer is going to make a difference in the win/loss column. Cobbs would have given some solid minutes off the bench but his role would be one of just don't be terrible while on the floor.
The losses of Johnson and Westbrook are much more significant though. We lose one of the best all-around defenders in the conference and the one guy on our roster who desperately wanted to take the first, last and every shot in between. These two departed seniors put their mark in the Gopher record books and will be missed. Westbrook finished tied for 20th on the all-time Gopher scoring list with 1,199 points. He is 6th in threes made, 10th in 3-pnt % and 3rd in free throw %. Damian Johnson is 3rd all-time in blocked shots, 2nd in steals and tied for 3rd for most games played in a Gopher uniform.
It is typically hard to replace guys like that but I believe this roster is poised to be just as (if not more) successful.
The Starting Seven
I am very confident that the Gophers have seven interchangeable guys who are all capable of starting without fear of any loss in productions. Maybe Tubby makes changes to the lineup based on matchups or maybe he sticks with the same lineup and forces other teams to deal with our rotation. That is his prerogative but the point is that we have seven very experienced and talented kids, most of who will be embarking on their third year of playing together.
PG - Al Nolen is for my money the best on-the-ball defender we've seen in a Gopher uniform. Eric Harris certainly in that conversation but there isn't much I enjoy more than watching Nolen give fits to an opposing PG up and down the floor. Nolen is very good with the ball in his hands pushing and leading the transition offense as well as getting by defenders in the half court. His jump shot isn't very strong but he has been smart enough to take the outside jumper unless he's unguarded. He also struggles to finish when he penetrates into the lane but he has gotten much better about finding an open teammate to up his assist total. So Nolen isn't going to dominate anybody offensively but he has become a true point guard who gets the ball to his teammates, doesn't turn it over and plays outstanding defense.
SG - Blake Hoffarber is arguably the best shooter in the country. I know that I often overstate things but I think this is absolutely true. Hoffarber is already the Gopher's career leader in threes made. And by the end of the year he'll very likely be in the Big Ten's top 10 as well. What makes that most impressive is that assuming his average numbers play out this year he'll also have the 2nd or 3rd best percentage of anyone in that top 10 for total threes made. Enough about records, Hoffarber is the definition of a pure shooter. When he gets an open look I think all of us assume it is going in, not hoping, assuming. He isn't the quickest cat on the floor and I don't trust him putting the ball on the floor. But he rebounds well for his position, he is always in the right position defensively and he passes the ball very well (easily our best post passer). His lack of athleticism and ball handling make him fairly easy to guard so at times he can disappear for stretches. He is best when the Gophers are in transition and he finds that open look from behind the arc and helps to pile on points when we are turning over the opponent. I desperately hope that Tubby runs more half-court sets for Hoffarber running him off screens and getting him open for more looks.
SF - Rodney Williams is the enigma of the Gopher hoopsters. He's a projected lottery pick in the 2011 draft! Yes, the guy who averaged 4.2 ppg and saw his playing time vanish by the end of the year is projected to be a lottery pick. What kept Rodney off the floor in 2009-10 were two things. His defensive awareness and his ball handling. There is no denying his explosiveness, athleticism and raw talent. But he needs to figure out how to use that explosiveness to get by defenders and then he needs to be able to do something with the ball when he gets by his man. He also needs to greatly improve his team defense. On a Tubby Smith team you will not be playing when it counts if he or your teammates cannot trust that you'll be there on the helpside to get that crucial defensive stop in the final minutes. A year of learning the defense and working on that ball handling will hopefully pay off with huge dividends in his sophomore season. Potentially a huge breakout year is in store for Williams. But the beauty is I think this team can be very successful even with marginal improvement.
PF - Colton Iverson will get the start at power forward in this first exhibition game. The legit seven-footer has proven over the last couple years to be very tough inside, especially on the defensive end. His playing time seems to vary more than anybody else on the roster but he often will have stretches where he is blocking shots, grabbing rebounds and showing a spark offensively. He has a nice touch in the paint and I love his little baby hook move that he doesn't use often enough. I fully expect that it won't be long before Iverson is coming off bench or at least he'll likely be one of the first to come out for a quick breather before he spells Sampson at center.
C - Ralph Sampson III has had a very up and down two-year career. At times you forget that RSIII is even on the floor but then at times last year he started to show signs of dominating. Hard to forget his 21 point, seven rebound game against Purdue at home last year. The big man certainly has the potential to be an All-Big Ten player and really be a force on this year's club. But before I start counting on end of season awards I'd love to see consistency from the junior. How did he follow up that Purdue performance? He averaged 4.8 pts and 5 reb during his next five games. I think a reasonable expectation is 10 ppg and 6.5 reb for Sampson, though he's capable of a little bit more.
Starter #6 - Devoe Joseph could make the argument that he not only should be starting but he's the best player on the team. In the stretch run of last seaosn Joseph was easily our best player and best scorer. He is capable of backing up Nolen at the point and playing off guard as well. I personally believe he is perfectly suited to come off the bench as instant offense when a defense isn't able to set their ideal matchup at tip off. He can come in at either guard spot and I fully expect that he'll finish most games even if he isn't starting them. DJ can shoot well, he can handle the ball well and he has a nice first step. He isn't exactly explosive though he is quick. He can get by guys but it usually results in a turnaround-fadeaway in the lane because he can't quite get by the help defense. It can be effective and he is our best scorer. Defensively he has greatly improved in his helpside D but his man-to-man isn't as pretty. It is adequate, I just wouldn't call on him to stop an opponent's primary weapon. That is really just a footwork thing that either hasn't been corrected by the staff or he just hasn't bothered to fix it. Overall Joseph is valuable and he'll be heavily relied upon to pick up some of the scoring slack left by the loss of Westbrook.
Starter #7 - Trevor Mbakwe was missed so much last year. The forward is very strong and freakishly athletic. I personally am expecting very big things from him and firmly believe he will be our best player by the end of the year and the one most likely to earn All-Big Ten honors. I think he will replace the 10 ppg lost by Damian Johnson and hopefully double DJ's rebounding output. On the glass is where I think he'll make his biggest contribution. The Tubby Smith Gophers have been very good about rebounding their own misses but have really struggled on the defensive glass. Mbakwe will cure that ailment. I am very excited about TM and haven't hidden that fact but I also don't think people should be expecting 22 points and 18 rebounds per game. Mbakwe will probably be in the 11 or 12 points area and hopefully in the 7-8 rebounds per game area. Those aren't All-American numbers but they are very good and you'll see the occasional outburst of 18 points and/or 14 rebounds. Defensively he is strong enough to handle a big/physical PF and athletic enough to guard a quicker forward.
The Bench - is going to be rather inexperienced and should consist of three freshmen.
BENCH - Austin Hollins is getting a lot of praise from Tubby for being very mature and picking things up quickly. Myron is even suggesting that Hollins is pushing the starters for a starting role. I doubt we'll see that but expect Hollins to be the first freshman off the bench and assuming he is picking up the defense he'll give us very good minutes with low turnovers and the ability to hit an outside shot or two.
BENCH - Maurice Walker is going to be the primary big man off the bench (behind seven starters). And he is a big man who has trimmed down a bit but is still sporting a 6-10, 290 frame. The Canada native has nimble feet and should be physically capable of handling a Big Ten season in the paint. I think he, like Mbakwe, will give us some strength inside that will lead to much better defensive rebounding. Think Draymond Green with less polish. Walker is a mature freshman who has also had exposure playing on the Canadian Junior National team. He'll see a lot of minutes and it will be interesting to see how he develops throughout the season.
BENCH - Chip Armelin is a big unknown but has also been getting praise from the staff. He was a late signing but the 6-3 guard averaged 23 points and 9 rebounds as a senior. Like all other freshmen on a Tubby Smith team if he can play defense he'll see some minutes.
BENCH - Maverick Ahanmisi is another freshman and the point guard may get some time in a back up role to Nolen. I would expect that his role will be less than what Justin Cobbs was last year and we will not see him much this season. My vote, if I had one, would be to redshirt Maverick. But we may need him and he may very well surprise us all.
BENCH - Bryant Allen is the last guy I'm going to talk about. If anybody is going to play that back up to the Nolen/Joseph combo at point I think eventually it will be Allen. The sophomore has a year of learning the system and he won't have that pesky bowl game to get in the way of practice time this year. He is super quick, very good defensively and at least in high school was quite a scorer.
Elliot Eliason is expected to redshirt and Oto Osenieks is for sure redshirting.
I'm jacked about the season and this group is a nice mix of talent, experience and a mature freshman class. Expectations and predictions are a topic for another day. What I can guarantee is that this team is going to be competitive every single time they step on to the floor, regardless of the opponent. They will win a lot of games and give us something to enjoy during the winter season.