There's optimism surrounding University of Minnesota basketball. Tubby Smith has taken the Gophers to two consecutive NCAA Tournaments. The Gophers have been a factor in the Big Ten. And this year's team has a national pundit or two suggesting our maroon and gold are a team that can compete -- and really, after the Monson years, we should be pleased with where the Gophers stand.
I preface this post in that manner because what I want to do in the next couple weeks is ask a few questions about the Gophers, highlighting perhaps this team's questions marks, or perceived weaknesses. I'm concentrating here not to be negative, but if the team succeeds in some of these areas, it will go a long way in taking the Gophers from a token NCAA Tournament team to a Big Ten title contender.
The first question this Gophers team must answer is where the offense comes from. We know they'll defend. They have size (and for the first time since Dan Coleman we actually have a power forward!). But it's on offense where most questions lie. Most frustrations for Minnesota fans (and I'm sure players and coaches) came last season on offense. Half-court sets were, at times, hard to watch. And when things broke down, the Gophers didn't have many players who could create their own shots.
Let's flashback to 2009-10.
Lawrence Westbrook was an enigma. One minute you loved him. Moments later his play caused face-palms throughout Gopher Nation. Whether you loved him or couldn't stand him, there's no arguing that he was Minnesota's most involved offensive player. He carried the team on his back at times. He hit clutch free throws. And he also turned the ball over at a far too brisk pace. But there's no doubt, his offense will be missed.
Gone too is Damian Johnson. He'll never be remembered as a tremendously efficient offensive player, but he scored 10 points per game and his length, athleticism and tenacity led to offense-from-defense buckets thanks to his ability to create steals and block shots. With Paul Carter, who might have filled that similar role also gone, the Gophers' transition scoring could also take a hit.
In my opinion, that's a significant chunk of Minnesota's already troubled offense that is no longer around. So, for the 2010-11 version of the Golden Gophers, who scores?
Let's start with the starting lineup Tubby used in the team's exhibition win Tuesday night.
Al Nolen: The team's starting point guard has a reputation as a defensive stopper. Offensively? Not Al's strong suit. While he's typically been able to penetrate against most defenders, he's struggled finishing around the basket. His jump shot doesn't scare opposing defenses. He shot just 37 percent in 18 games last year and 11-28 from three. That was actually an improvement on his sophomore year, when Al was just 33 percent from the floor and 29 percent (20-68) from three. The Gophers might be a better team with Nolen back this season, but on offense, where the Gophers struggle, Nolen isn't the difference maker.
Blake Hoffarber: When Blake's open, he can shoot. Everyone that watches Big Ten basketball knows that. But, it's the "when he's open" caveat that deserves our attention. Blake's a superior shooter, not a superior athlete. For him to take another step in his scoring output, the Gophers need to create opportunities for him. That means Nolen needs to penetrate and kick. That means Ralph Sampson III, Colton Iverson and Trevor Mbakwe need to score with their backs to the basket to force teams to collapse, thus creating space for Hoffarber. Blake isn't going to shake defenders with a jab step or with his speed cutting without the ball. He needs his team to put him in a position to score. If they do, Minnesota's half-court offense will take significant steps forward.
Rodney Williams: The would-be NBA lottery pick looks to be in line to start at the 3 in his sophomore campaign. His athleticism is exciting. With what we've seen so far from him offensively, it's hard to suggest he's anything other than a question mark on offense. Ideally, Williams is this team's slasher. We know he's athletic enough to fill that role. But has his ball-handling improved enough during the offseason to a point where he can take top-notch Big Ten defenders off the dribble? Has he improved his jump shot so defenders have to respect it? If the answer to both of those questions is yes, watch out, because the Gophers haven't had a player with his type of athleticism in recent memory.
Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III: In two years, I'm not sure either has been entirely comfortable on the offensive end. Tubby has tried high-low sets at times with mixed success. RSIII tried at times last year to assert himself offensively with his mid-range jump shot. His jumper didn't fall consistently. And both junior big men have struggled to establish themselves as an offensive threat in the post. With another year under their belts, I expect that both big men will make positive strides now that they're upper-classmen. And if RSIII's jumper begins to fall, look out. It will open up Iverson and Trevor Mbakwe underneath the basket.
And the reserves ... with the caveat that with the newcomers, there really isn't enough information to go on to have any real feel for how they'll translate to Big Ten basketball.
Devoe Joseph: If Al Nolen is Minnesota's defensive stopper at point guard, Devoe Joseph is the team's instant offense. It became clear late in the season that Tubby trusts Devoe with the ball in his hands when the game is on the line. And why shouldn't he. Joseph was the best Minnesota player last year when it came to creating his own shot. Minnesota's played its best basketball towards the end of last season. And Devoe's minutes spiked during a January game at Indiana. From January 17th on, Devoe never played fewer than 22 minutes per game. And during Minnesota's Tournament push, Nolen was the team's best offensive player, throwing up 17 against Iowa, 15 against Penn State, 17 in the Big Ten Tourney opener against MSU and then 10 and 14 against Purdue and OSU respectively. From my view, Joseph needs to be on the floor enough to get offensive opportunities. If he can find those minutes as the team's 6th man, Minnesota fans will be happy. If Devoe's minutes get lost amid an 11 man rotation, that doesn't bode well for the Gophers' offense.
Trevor Mbakwe: It's seriously been two years for the Gophers playing without a true power forward. Adding Mbakwe's size and rebounding ability, at a minimum, will help Minnesota clean up the defensive boards and get out in transition and get more second-chance points on the offensive end. His shear size, physicality and athleticism will be a tremendous benefit to the Minnesota offense. If he adds a back-to-the-basket option on offense, the Gophers will take serious strides forward. He's this team's wildcard.
Maurice Walker, Austin Hollins, Elliott Eliason, Maverick Ahanmisi, Chip Armelin: Otherwise known as Minnesota's Fab 5. My sincere hope is that Tubby significantly shortens his bench this season and doesn't try and spread minutes around for 10 or 11 players. I've seen various reports on all of these guys, and I'm cautiously optimistic a few might play a role this season. I'm curious to see if Walker's big body can be effective in the Big Ten. There's certainly precedent for that. And Eliason has certainly received some high praise from Coach Smith. Suffice to say for our purposes here, however, none of the above 5 figures to be a significant force for the Gophers offensively.
Conclusion: Minnesota's biggest weakness in 2009-10 was its inability to create its own good looks and have consistent productive possessions in the half-court offense. Tubby-ball on offense has been typically stagnant, bailed out only by quality defense and transition baskets. Our best hope for that to change this year lies with our bigs providing a significant increase in production on the blocks, thus creating more space for our shooters, Rodney Williams maturing into a threat as a slasher on the wing and Devoe Joseph creating his own looks when the offense breaks down. If those things happen, I'll jump on the bandwagon of those that think the Gophers could possibly compete for a Big Ten championship.