(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
The NCAA Tournament hasn't even really started but Gopher fans can start looking ahead to 2011.
I think it is good to talk about this while the current season is still fresh in our minds and we can then look back to this in October. There is no doubt that this team isn't good enough to make much noise in the Big Ten next year without some improvement from virtually everyone. The starters need to be better, the bench needs to improve and the coaching staff isn't off the hook for either. I'm not going to waste any time...let's start looking ahead to next year, below is the roster of players expected to contribute and my two cents on each of them.
Assuming everybody comes back we may have up to 13 guys who may see action next year on a regular basis. If Trevor Mbakwe is back he is a lock to play 30 minutes but nobody else is really guaranteed anything. Rodney Williams and Ralph Sampson are the two guys expected to get the most minutes after Mbakwe but if they don't get better their minutes might even go down next year. I'll start with the individual players with a bit of speculation on the starting lineup.
PG - Julian Welch
Strengths - scoring, strength
Weakness - not at rue point, TBD
The JUCO commit is the newest Gopher and I'd be shocked if he isn't in the starting lineup from day one. Welch is more of a scoring guard who, in spite of what he says, is going to be out of position at the point. His coach this year played him at point some but it doesn't sound like the stayed there. "Julian is a, well, he's not really a point guard first of all," said Cornelius. "He's more of a two guard. He played some point guard for us at the beginning of the season because we had some deficiencies there and he was a good enough basketball player that he could bring the ball up the floor and do the job." He may be adequate bringing the ball up but I believe we'll be lacking in a floor general again this year. On the bright side, Welch is a scorer and that is something we desperately need.
SG - Andre Hollins
Strengths - athleticism, scoring, shooting (I think)
Weakness - true freshman, TBD
I think the true freshman will start next year. Hollins has talked about coming in to play point as well but he too is more of a shooting guard than a true point. We won't have a true point (other than Maverick) but I think Hollins and Welch start as a point-duo. Either will be capable of bringing the ball up the floor and getting us into our offense. And both will be capable of scoring. He needs to be a perimeter scoring option starting from day one. Gopher fans are not used to true freshman making an immediate impact, especially offensively, but Hollins has to be that guy. Other programs bring in true freshmen who become immediate offensive weapons and we need Hollins to be that guy. This is as much on Hollins as it is on Tubby. Andre needs to come in ready to be a scorer in the Big Ten and Tubby needs to let him. Personally I think the notion that Tubby holds guys back is overblown, his system certainly allows for players to make plays. We just haven't had many playmakers, especially as freshmen. We haven't seen Hollins play but if this team is going to be an NCAA Tournament team we'll need him.
SF - Rodney Williams
Strengths - athletic ability
Weakness - shooting, vision, ball-handling, consistency
If I had to mark one guy who needs to improve his game more than anybody else on this roster it is Rodney. He has the tools. He could use some improvement on his shot, his ball-handling and his defense. But what needs to improve more than anything is his assertiveness, consistency and court awareness. He needs to be a scorer and someone that teams fear. Right now he has such narrow court-vision that it makes him hard to really utilize his skills in a productive manner. He does need to spend hours and hours shooting the ball but if he really wants to be better, more consistent and reliable he needs to improve his court awareness and play confidently. Those skills are harder to improve, sometimes you just are what you are.
PF - Trevor Mbakwe
Strengths - rebounding, strength, explosiveness
Weakness - shooting, hands
Mbakwe is the opposite of Williams, if he can have a similar season to the one we are wrapping up I think we'll be OK. That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement but if he averages 14 points and 10.5 rebounds per game that helps us a lot. Mbakwe has a shot at being drafted however, if he improves on two things. The first is his jump shot. Right now teams are content to sit back on Trevor when he has the ball even just 12 feet out from the basket. He doesn't need to hit threes but if he can consistently hit jump-shots from the elbow or baseline he'll add a dimension to his game that doesn't currently exist and teams will have to guard him. Secondly he needs to improve his hands. Trevor is great at grabbing rebounds, but he drops two or three post entry passes per game. With him that is giving away about four points per game because he has terrible hands. He can improve his leadership and being able to score when it really matters. But ultimately just don't regress in production.
C - Ralph Sampson III
Strengths - outside shooting, shot-blocking
Weakness - toughness, assertiveness, vision, consistency, defense
Ralph had maybe the most disappointing season of any Gopher. His stats were fine and he does a few things pretty well. 10.2 points per game, over 5 rebounds per game, 2 blocks and a good FG% all are solid. But this isn't about stats, it is about consistency and toughness. Ralph actually started the season looking very good. He scored double figures in seven of the first 10 games. For the season he hit double figures 17 times and was the team's third leading scorer. The problem was his lack of consistency and being an inside presence when we needed him most. He had 10 games of 7 points or fewer and the final seven games of the year he averaged just 7.3 ppg. Those are a lot of numbers to show that he often disappeared and was rarely a difference maker for the Gophers when he was most needed. Overall he is what he is, which is a good shot blocker, average rebounder, good shooter but not made to play with his back to the basket. I like the two post offense Tubby employs that usually had Mbakwe fighting for position down low with Ralph near the top of the key to reverse the ball, play high-low with Mbakwe or shoot that 15 foot jumper. He and Trevor would screen for each other and swap positions but for the most part this is worked well (imo). Ralph needs to get tougher and he needs to become a better defender. He blocks plenty of shots but it is usually not his man, his guy too often gets free for open dunks because Ralph loses him (remember Ohio State and Dallas Lauderdale with dunk after dunk in the 2nd half?). He has some tools and he is valuable but everyone would like to see more.
Bench - Austin Hollins
Strengths - court-vision, defense
Weakness - shooting, lacks explosiveness
If Hollins starts next year it will be because of his defense, if he doesn't he'll be the first perimeter player off the bench. He wasn't exactly a lock-down defender this past year but he was pretty good and in year two he should be more confident and more prepared to be one of our better defenders. Typically Tubby values defense over offense so guys can earn plenty of PT by being good defenders, this year he didn't have much of a choice over who received minutes. Offensively I think Hollins needs to become a better shooter. I think his skill set is there, he just needs to shoot and shoot and shoot. In his sophomore year he should be better prepared for the speed of the game, his legs will be under him more often on his shot and he shouldn't have to think as much on the floor. And he has a decent stroke, it was just so inconsistent. If he just shoots all summer he should really up his 3-point %. He sees the floor well and over the last several games he took the ball to the hole when penetration lanes were open, he was a little deliberate and not so smooth but he was adequate. If he can develop an outside game he'll be a valuable contributor in his sophomore year.
Bench - Joe Coleman
Strengths - athleticism, driving ability
Weakness - shooting threes, TBD
Another freshman who likely will not only get a lot of playing time but might be counted on to be a scorer. I'm not talking about 12-15 ppg, but coming off the bench and giving about 8 ppg and being a scoring threat when Andre Hollins is on the bench. Coleman is not a great shooter, by most accounts he is aggressive to the lane and can score. My fear is that we heard the same thing with Rodney Williams two years ago and he hasn't nearly lived up to expectations, however reasonable or unreasonable they were. I expect he'll play about 20 min per game, maybe a bit more or a bit less depending on his defense.
Bench - Colton Iverson
Strengths - strength, not afraid to bang, defensive rebounding
Weakness - scoring, athleticism
Iverson also had a very disappointing season. He just didn't improve at all from his sophomore to his junior season. Like Sampson he was stronger earlier than he was later in the season. During the Puerto Rico tourney he chipped in 15 against West Virginia when Sampson struggled and had a 7 point, 11 rebound game in the North Carolina win. But Iverson managed double-digits just three times all season and really showed no improvement to his offensive game. He works hard and is a banger but needs to polish his offensive game quite a bit. Next year playing time won't come quite as easy next year with Mo Walker and Elliot Eliason being healthy and eligible.
Bench - Oto Osenicks
Strengths - shooting, TBD
Weakness - TBD
The Latvian will is likely going to be the best shooter on the team, the 6-8 forward will probably be asked to play some PF and SF. It will be very interesting to see how Tubby's offense works with a shooting forward. Next year you might see Oto playing the PF with Mbakwe in the middle. With Oto being that top of the key guy who can reverse the ball or be a threat to shoot, that might open up the lane a bit more for Mbakwe? I certainly hope so. For me the bigger question is how well does he move? Can he play SF in the Big Ten? Is he athletic enough to get by people or defend other athletic forwards? If he is a bit more slow-footed then I expect he'll be a shooting PF, if he
Bench - Maurice Walker
Strengths - size and agility combo, shooting, hands
Weakness - too big?, returning from injury, TBD
Maurice was on his way to be having the best season of this freshman class, but the knee injury ruined that for him. Assuming he comes back full strength he will see plenty of minutes off the bench at both the center and power forward positions. Mo is a nice shooter for a big man, he is very skilled around the basket and is rather nimble for a big man. I said it before the season and I think it holds true but he is a very similar type of player to Michigan State's Draymond Green. If Walker can be that type of player he will help this team out immensely next year. As pointed out already playing time in the frontcourt will be in high demand. Sampson and Mbakwe are sure to play 25 and 30 minutes respectively and that leaves about 35 minutes to be split amongst Iverson, Walker, Eliason and Osenicks.
Bench - Maverick Ahanmisi
Strengths - ball handling
Weakness - defense, turnovers
The only true point guard on the roster probably benefited more than anyone else from the losses of Nolen and Joseph. Maverick got a lot of playing time at the point and while it wasn't always pretty it was great experience for the kid. He proved to be an OK shooter, at least by the standards of this roster. What Mav needs to improve upon above all else is his defense. His ball pressure is weak and his help defense is much worse.
Bench - Chip Armelin
Strengths - athleticism, penetration to the lane
Weakness - shooting
Armelin was relied upon more than Tubby ever imagined this year. I highly doubt anyone expected he'd play 11 minutes per game. He is one guy on this roster who very easily could improve a couple aspects of his game and become a significant contributor or his lack of offense relegates him to 8th or 9th man and his minutes actually decrease. The one thing Armelin needs to improve above all else is his shooting. 22% from behind the arc is about as bad as you are going to see from someone who attempted 40+ shots. If he can become a reliable shooter and develop into more of a floor leader he'll see plenty of playing time. If not the only way he gets 10 minutes a game is because he becomes a lock-down defender.
Bench - Eliott Eliason
Strengths - size, TBD
Weakness - TBD
Tubby has talked up Eliason quite a bit saying he could be one of the best big men to play in a Gopher uniform. Blame it on Tim Brewster but I'm not buying that until I actually see it. Eliason may be very good and he may be a surprise in his freshman season but the frontcourt is crowded and until proven otherwise I expect he'll get the fewest minutes. If I'm wrong that would indicate that he is outplaying probably Iverson, and would that be a bad thing?
This should be a more athletic team than what we witnessed this past season. That should translate into a better defensive team that rebounds well. Offensively we can't be any worse as a team shooting from three and we should have a couple guys who can score from the perimeter (though that may very well be wishful thinking). Still a LOT of question marks but we'll get into team questions and coaching staff analysis on another day.