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Gopher basketball - a Big Ten team on the rise?

The Gophers are entering year three of the Tubby Smith era. After steady improvement in the win column year by year and significant upgrading of the overall talent on the roster, year three has the makings for a special team.

Year one was a season of smoke and mirrors as Tubby used every coaching trick he had to squeeze 20 wins out of a team lacking any real talent.  Year two we saw an infusion of young talent to go along with those role players who were becoming veterans.  The youth and the experience complimented each other very well en route to a 22 win season and an NCAA Tournament first round match-up with Texas.

Year three sees the team returning it's top nine scorers to go along with a top 15 recruiting class.  This team will be exciting and has all of the necessary pieces to be a team that makes a run at the Big Ten title and deep into the NCAA Tournament.

You won't see anybody on this roster listed on a pre-season All-American team and you likely won't see any Gopher on the first team All-Big Ten preseason team.  But this roster is full of the necessary ingredients needed for a deep NCAA tournament run.  Coahing? Check!  Deep and experienced guard play?  Check!  Big men who can defend and rebound?  Check!  Youthful, athletic and dynamic players?  Check!  Defense?  Check!  Let's take a look at this Gopher club in greater detail.

You can't take a look at the Gophers without first taking a look at the man leading his troops into battle.  Tubby Smith brings immediate credibility to any conversation regarding the Golden Gophers.  Clearly he was unable to meet the bar of unrealistic expectations in Kentucky but he routinely took his teams to the Sweet 16 and beyond.  He has demonstrated ability to navigate teams through the conference season, through conference tournaments and through NCAA Tournaments. 

Next, lets talk about the guard play.  As mentioned, the Gophers are returning their top nine scorers and three of the top four are guards.  Also mentioned, you will not see any of these guys on and All-anything list.  They do some things very well, compliment each other well and all play very good defense.  The 2008-09 season was successful but this years squad will certainly be deeper and more athletic on both ends of the floor.  The team's leading, returning scorer is Lawrence Westbrook who is a streaky scorer who is capable of carrying the team at times.  Al Nolen a great on the ball defender and floor leader.  Devoe Joseph may take a starting spot away from one of those guys and is poised to have a breakout sophomore season.  This backcourt is talented and the the additions of Rodney Williams and Justin Cobb will add some much needed athleticism to the backcourt. 

The backcourt is strong but the big men may end up being the real strength of this Gopher club.  The team's best player is clearly SF-Damian Johnson.  DJ Swat was the Big Ten's best defensive player a year ago and is very underrated on the offensive side of the ball.  He does everything very well and if anybody is poised to garner any conference post-season awards, it will be he.  Also in the frontcourt sophomores Ralph Sampson III and Colten Iverson had very good freshmen seasons as they managed to be productive on both ends of the floor through an entire Big Ten season.  Both will need to take steps forward to make the Gopher interior more feared on the offensive end, but defensively both had very strong years as freshmen. Paul Carter was a JUCO transfer last year and really eased into the Gopher rotation but by the end of the season he was able to step in for Damian Johnson and give quality minutes.  But the biggest addition to the Gophers may be transfer, Trevor Mbakwe (if he is cleared to play).  Mbakwe is an absolute beast on the boards and wil give us a physical presence on both ends of the floor.

What the Gophers were missing last year was dynamic and athletic scorers.  Tubby Smith and his staff brought in a consensus top 15 recruiting class that should perfectly compliment the experienced returning roster.  Royce White is coming in to play one of the forward positions and should immediately give the Gopher offense a boost.  Rodney White is freakishly athletic who will add a dimension of athleticism not seen in a Gopher uniform in several years.  Justin Cobbs is a true PG who will add depth to the backcourt.

What we will see offensively is a bit unknown.  It is hard to predict how the top nine returning scorers will fit with the more dynamic incoming players who clearly will have to be a factor in Tubby Smith's offense.  But clearly defense will be what drives this team and what will carry them.  Al Nolen and Damian Johnson are both worthy of being All-Big Ten defensively.  And the frontcourt, with the addition of Mbakwe, should be one of the best rebounding groups in the conference. 

Ultimately defense will be what defines the Gopher season.  But the returning players plus some very key and well placed additions could make this a very special season at the Barn.