I cannot remember a Gopher hoops season that has had Gopher Nation this excited or been filled with this kind of expectations.The team returns all significant contributors to last year's squad that notched a win over an eventual #1 seed, racked up 22 wins and earned an NCAA tournament invitation. That in and of itself is reason for optimism and excitement but the team also adds three or four players who potentially will fill the biggest weaknesses from a year ago. Add to that a proven winner and highly respected head coach, and this season could be one of the best we have witnessed in many years. (and the best part is, next year could be even better, but we'll wait 12 months before we start talking about the 2010-11 season).
Let's first start with the known quantities. What we bring back from a year ago is more than enough to look forward to a winning season that is very likely to end in second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. Defensively we have two of the best defenders in the conference with Damian Johnson and Al Nolen. We have two talented and developing big men who did a fantastic job of learning how to play Big Ten basketball on the fly. We have a few guards who lacked scoring consistency but they all were capable of putting up points in bunches. And let's not forget a couple of JUCO transfers who have had a year under their belt and are poised to contribute more on both ends of the floor. As stated, with modest improvement, this roster is good enough to finish top 6 of the Big Ten, get an NCAA bid and likely be favored in that first round match up. For a program that has not had sustained success since the Haskins era this would be more than enough for a very fun season in the Barn.
But there are things the returning roster was missing. A consistent and go-to scorer, some athleticism with the ability to get the ball to the rim from the perimeter, depth at PG and some toughness/nastiness inside. A top 15 recruiting class that has the pieces to fill those holes perfectly is what we have coming in to compliment the current roster.
Royce White is a consensus top 40 player in the country. He has the tools to step into this Big Ten roster and immediately fill the role of a dominating scorer. This is likely a role he will have to grow into and he doesn't have to carry the load every night, the hope is that defenses will have to account for him every possession and that will open things up for the other four guys on the floor. Rodney Williams is an athletic freak who should be Big Ten ready defensively but the hope here is that he'll be the one able to break down a defense and finish at the rim or kick it out to one of our shooters. Not having this threat allowed defenses to stick tight to the likes of Blake Hoffarber or Devoe Joseph making it hard for them to find their stroke from behind the arc. Justin Cobbs is the incoming recruit talked about the least but this true point guard should provide depth to the position allowing Al Nolen to play strong throughout the season. Finally we add Trevor Mbakwe. TM is the one I think will add the most to this roster. This guy finally gives the Gophers some toughness, a physical presence inside and some rebounding tenacity. The 2008-09 Gophers were a great offensive rebounding team but defensive rebounding was significant issue at times, I believe TM will change that dramatically.
The question though is will the formula of Returners + Newcomers = great success? Let's hope so, but here is what would be disappointing, surpassing all expectations and a realistic look at what should define success.
A disappointing season is hard to define. Obviously not making the NCAA tournament would be disappointing. Finishing outside of the top 6 in the Big Ten would be disappointing. But I think the minimum bar is winning a first round NCAA tournament game. By my definition making the tournament but losing in the first round again would be disappointing. For this level of defining success I don't care about Big Ten rank. As far as I'm concerned we could finish 7th, make the tournament, win a first round game and I can at the very least get some satisfaction out of this season. Obviously many factors go into this. If Damian Johnson gets hurt, Trevor Mbakwe is not eligible
A wildly successful season, with a pinch of realism, would be a Big Ten championship or maybe even a run to the Elite Eight. There is almost zero chance that this team is good enough to win an NCAA Championship. I could be wrong (I'd be happy to be wrong), but on paper we don't have a lot of holes but we also don't have bevy of superior talent. Now, I DO think this team is good enough to be in the thick of things for the Big Ten title. It isn't likely but if MSU and Purdue struggle or drop a game or two they shouldn't, this team might find it in a title hunt coming down the stretch. Assuming that doesn't happen, I also wouldn't be shocked to see a quick run through the Big Ten tourney resulting in a championship. And finally there is enough talent that with the right match ups and maybe the right upsets an Elite Eight or Final Four run would be a story but isn't completely unfathomable. One of those three scenarios is possible though clearly would be reaching beyond what most feel this team is capable of. I'm not holding my breath but much stranger things have happened in a college basketball season.
So after establishing the lower and upper parameters for success here is what I think is a realistic, if not slightly optimistic, picture of how the season will play out. The 2009-10 Gophers will be a top 5 Big Ten team and ranked in the top 20 for the vast majority of the season. I believe that a third place finish, #4 seed in the tourney and a run to the Sweet 16 is a realistic expectation.
Many of our weaknesses have been strengthened, but this is not a complete team and question marks do remain. So to believe this team is on par with some of the top 10 caliber teams is a bit of a stretch. Are we capable of beating Purdue or Michigan State during any given game? Absolutely, but with questions around consistent scoring and how this group comes together we are just as capable of losing to Michigan, Illinois, Penn State or Ohio State on a given night. When the season plays itself out with the usual ups and downs we usually see I expect we will go 11-1 in the non-conference portion of the schedule and right around 12-6 in the Big Ten which should be good enough for 3rd place.
That will take us into the Tourney where we should be seeded high enough that winning two games will be expected. Crazy things happen in the NCAA tournament so winning two games is not an absolute requirement for a successful season, but given the talent, depth and coaching on this team there is no reason to believe we are not capable of achieving this level of "success."