I know it is football season and basketball doesn't really begin for a few more months but this year the Gophers are getting to work early. Tubby and the boys will be heading to Canada soon for a pre-pre-season set of games and because of this trip they get to start practicing early. This is really a blessing for the 2010-11 Gophers who have a lot of young guys on the roster. To get an extra couple weeks to teach them the fundamentals of Tubby's systems and then the chance to put those to use in a game situation is invaluable. When they practice for real in October just think how much further along these freshman will be compared to freshmen around the Big Ten.
As part of the kickoff the media was allowed to come and watch a portion of practice and then interview Tubby / players. Here are my observations from the practice.
- Trevor Mbakwe is going to make a huge difference on this team. I may get into this more below but the lack of a go-to scorer and a rebounding have been the biggest weaknesses of this team in the Tubby era. We have one of these questions answered. He isn't going to grab every missed shot but his stated goal is to lead the Big Ten in rebounding (and blocked shots), he is clearly capable. He won't be the go-to scorer but he should score in double-digits and rebound more than he scores. I think realistically he'll average 10 points and 11 boards. Last year the Big Ten's leader was Mike Davis with 9.2 rpg and the Gopher's leader was Sampson with 5.8. He also was the recipient of an lob for a lay-in with plenty of traffic in the lane. He is very athletic and strong. I'm very high on Mbakwe right now, so much so that I'm afraid I've already raised expectations to an unrealistic level.
- Devoe Joseph - speaking of missing that go-to scorer...Is this the year Devoe steps up and is that guy? Nothing I saw this morning would indicate that. His only move was still the step back shot with a slight fade-away. He did not show the ability to get by his defender and into the lane. In his defense he is nursing a quad injury so his explosiveness should be better by this winter, but his offensive game didn't appear to be any different. Defensively he also did not appear to be improved.
Al Nolen - remember what you saw last year (the first half of the year)? That's what I saw this morning. Excellent defense, can penetrate into the lane on offense, had a couple nice passes for points but couldn't score when he had the chance. I still maintain that he
iswas (before Mbakwe) our best overall player, who just isn't a scorer. He is critical to our success this year and he should be cleared to play. Talking with Myron, he pointed out that it is really difficult to get out of Tubby's doghouse, so Nolen's role with this team will be interesting to watch. Can Tubby afford to not have his best defensive player and only true PG starting the game?
- Blake Hoffarber - again, what you saw last year is what I saw today. Once they started playing 5-on-5 going up and down the floor, Hoffarber was 4/4 from behind the arc. He scored a couple in transition with Nolen finding him and he got a couple off when his man was slow to close out and his quick release wasn't guardable. I talked with Blake after practice and he told me the one thing he's worked on that we can expect to see differently this year is a pump-fake. He said at the end of the year he was being face-guarded a lot and guys closed out really hard on him with a few shots being blocked late in the year. He has worked on moving better without the ball and adding a pump-fake for when guys come flying out to block his deadly three ball.
- Rodney Williams - he looks a little bigger, especially his legs. I also asked Rodney what he was working on this offseason. He said he's worked a lot on his ball-handling and he has altered his jump shot a little bit. I also asked him what he thought kept him from getting more minutes last year and he thought it was his defensive rebounding. He was often out of position defensively and that put him out of position to box guys out. I did not notice any increase confidence or a more polished offensive game but it was just part of one practice. Myron also asked Tubby (in a prior interview) about rebounding and Tubby talked about Rodney "We need Rodney on the boards. He could be our leading rebounder." I'd like to see him score a lot more too, but apparently Tubby's message is getting through to Rodney.
Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson - if you are expecting me to say that they were rather similar to what we saw last season, you are correct. RSIII was agressive and tough inside on some possessions and soft on others. Iverson looked much more like the Iverson we saw in the second half of the season than the first. He is about an inch taller than Sampson, and is right around a legit 7 feet with shoes on. I like both of these guys and hopefully there will be some improvement from last year to this. I didn't expect any huge signs of improvement and I wasn't surprised. Tubby in that same Myron interview said he'd like to see both of these guys average 8 rebounds per game. I don't see that happening but combined if they can get 13 or 14 per game that would be a good start. On a side note, the elder Sampson was in the building.
That is our top 7 and the ones I am secure with. After that the question is who is our 8th and possibly 9th guy(s)?
Austin Hollins looks to be the most ready of the freshmen. He is very thin and could really use a year to add some bulk. Defensively he seemed to get it and made quick adjustments when corrected by the staff. His 1-on-1 footwork was very slow but as long as he isn't being asked to guard someone 1-on-1 in the full court he should be fine. He and Rodney were battling in nearly every drill and I expect that will be the case all year long for those two.
Elliot Eliason - easily the tallest guy on the team. Eliason moves well, had good footwork in the post but I'm not sure his body will be Big Ten ready. Works hard and has some skill, he'll be a good Big Ten center.
- Maurice Walker is a big guy but he does not move all that well. If he lost 20 pounds he might be dangerous. At current size he certainly is a big body in the paint and against certain teams that won't pull him out to the perimeter he could have some success. My guess is that if Tubby has to pick one of the new bigs to play and one to redshirt, Walker is the one you'll see in uniform this season. His size helps and Eliason would really benefit from a year of learning.
Maverick Ahanmisi - will benefit from a redshirt year. He is quick and appeared very coachable (although who wouldn't in your first practice as a Big Ten player). On one particular play he went up for a rebound amongst Walker, Iverson and Dominique Dawson; Ahanmisi is the one who came down with it. Tough kid who will benefit from Al Nolen guarding him everyday in practice for a year, but I don't think he helps us this year.
- Dominique Dawson - the walk-on might have to play some this year. I was not overly impressed as I was expecting a little bit more athleticism. Instead I saw size. He is a strong kid who might have to play some spot minutes as a PF this year. If he plays more than 4 min a game we'll be in trouble but in short stints he may be able to give us some defense and a foul or two.
- Chip Armelin, Oto Osenieks and Chris Halvorsen are not allowed to practice or travel with the team because of late signing, NCAA Clearinghouse issues and transfer restrictions respectively.
There are plenty of questions to be answered so having a couple weeks to practice and play before the real season begins in October is a blessing for this team.