PJS Note: This is the second installment in a series previewing the Golden Gophers' 2008-09 men's basketball season. The previous post dealt with returning seniors. Today we look at returning juniors.
While many Minnesota fans and Big Ten viewers will be keeping their eyes trained on Tubby Smith's incoming recruiting class, the two most important players on the team, in my opinion, are returning juniors.
Here's a look at what to expect from Minnesota's returning juniors.
Lawrence Wesbrook: Considered by some to be a problem child in high school, Westbrook came to Minnesota with the reputation as a shoot-at-will ball-hog. In his sophomore year, he was anything but. In fact, I'd argue he should have looked for his shot more often.
For stretches last season, he was Minnesota's most effective scoring guard. He'd push tempo on the break. He'd slash to the basket and pull up with a confident jump shot. When Minnesota's offense was stalled in the Big Ten Tournament opener against Northwestern, it was Westbrook took over the game. He scored a career-high 17 points.
For a guy who started all 34 games last year, the Gophers would have benefitted from Westbrook taking over more games. But the patience Tubby Smith showed in him ended up paying large dividends and if the Gophers are to take another step this year, Westbrook will need to be a go-to scorer. Westbrook shot a respectable 40 percent from the field and 38 percent from long-distance. If he grows as a junior, seeks his shot more often, he could be Minnesota's best and most important offensive player.
Damian Johnson: The type of player a coach loves, Johnson does all of the little things right. He plays defense with intensity. He attacks the glass for rebounds. He challenges shots. He runs the floor and he clearly finds ways to be a positive on offense.
A tweener type, not quite big enough to bang all night with thick power forwards and not quite offensive enough to play all of his minutes at small forward, Johnson has found a way to be better than average at both position. I've previously cited his superiority on defense creating steals and blocking shots. But he has also been able to find ways to take advantage of mismatches of his own. He has an OK perimeter shot (hopefully he spent the summer taking jump shots). That allows him to bring forwards out of the paint. He also has an inside game good enough--not great--to take advantage of smaller defenders.
No player progressed more during the first year of Tubby Smith. He was, in my opinion, the team's MVP. He was one big reason why the Gophers were successful playing pressure full-court defense.
WIth Johnson out for the beginning of the year, he'll have to be ready mentally and physically when he returns to hit the ground running. Some will argue that Devron Bostick or Paul Carter can replace Johnson. I'll believe that when I see it. If Johnson's injury lingers or he isn't what he was last year, the Gophers could take a step back in 08-09.
Kevin Payton: A junior from New Jersey, Payton probably drew more criticism from Minesota fans than any other Gopher last year. The criticism was mostly warranted, but it also probably made Payton's mistakes more obvious.
His playing time went way down from his freshman season. Seven times Tubby Smith didn't get Payton into a game, and this for a guy who opened the season starting the first two games. All of Payton's problems seemed to stem from one overarching problem. He played tentative. In two seasons, Payton has turned the ball over more than 100 times. Last season, he shot an abysmal 15 percent from beyond the arc last year. When the Gophers were playing full-court defense, Payton lacked the quickness to effectively apply pressure. To be fair, I do think Payton was effective in half-court trap defenses, where his length (6'5) led to opposition turnovers.
It's possible Payton will have calmed down as a junior and could have an impact. But I'd expect his playing time to further diminish. Al Nolen is your sure starter at point guard. Lawrence Westbrook is your sure starter at the 2-guard. Blake Hoffarber, Bostick and Carter will play some at small fowrad. And Devoe Joseph will grab minutes in the backcourt. If Payton can be a steady hand who doesn't turn the ball over and who can get the Gophers into half-court offensive sets, he can earn some playing time at the point position. But through two seasons, he hasn't shown the ability to do that. Let's hope 08-09 is different for Payton.
Travis Busch: An afterthought most of the season, Busch played a role in one of the most amazing plays in MInnesota basketball history. I maintain his pass was off the mark (it was intended for Dan Coleman). But that's neither here nor there really, Busch found a way with that heave, and in many other ways, to be a valuable commodity to the 2007-08 Gophers. And I was as shocked as anyone he was able to do that.
A Cal-Poly transfer originally from the Twin Cities, Busch played more than 10 minutes last season just three times. But as I think back to last season, it seems as if he had more of an impact than that. What was most astonishing about Busch's season was how he was able to help the Gophers. When the team wasn't playing with intensity, Busch would come in and grab a rebound among the trees. This was doubly impressive when you consider he stands at 6'4 and a paltry 220 pounds. When Spencer Tollackson was struggling on the interior and Busch came in and made a play, I simply shook my head in disbelief.
But Busch had many gritty moments. Against Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament, with Coleman in foul trouble and Tollackson banged up, Busch played some sensational defense on Indiana big men. He fought for defensive position on the blocks, fronted his man and didn't shudder when his opponents vastly outweighed him. The kid busted his ass whenever he was called on.
Because of that, expect Busch to play a similar role this year. He won't play 20 minutes in any game probably. He won't be an offensive threat. He's the guy who comes in and dives on the floor for loose balls. He'll grab a rebound, rip and clear with authority. It was a pleasure watching Busch last season. And I'm still shocked that that is the case.