As Tubby Smith's Gophers have stumbled down the stretch, a large contingent of the fanbase has relaxed, noting that this is simply a building year. They point to the lack of departing talent at seasons end and to the team's second consecutive nationally competitive recruiting class.
This is a building block year, many say, and the team will take off as Ralph Sampson III, Devoe Joseph, Paul Carter and Colton Iverson grow along with incoming recruits Royce White, Rodney Williams, Trevor Mbakwe and Justin Cobbs.
Maybe. But I'm not sure the new parts fit our needs.
For much of the second half of the Big Ten slate, Coach Smith has forced the ball inside after he figured out that our outside shooters were suspect at best. And if this team has a strength at the moment, it is scoring inside. RSIII has been solid. Colton Iverson has been OK. Damian Johnson has found ways to score inside.
No doubt this team can still be better inside. And Smith's recruiting class addresses that. Let's take the recruits one by one.
Royce White: A 6'7 combo forward, but more of an interior player than a slasher or shooter, White is the most heralded player Smith has brought in so far. Here's what ESPN Insider says.
White is a strong combination forward that plays more like a power forward than a small forward at this point. He is physical around the basket where on the left low block he likes to face and attack the rim along the baseline. White is strong enough to finish through contact when he gets his shoulders square to the basket. On the right low block he will also face and attack the middle of the lane and finish with his left hand over the defense. White loves to drive left when his faces up. White is an average shooter at best behind the arc and this is an area that he needs to develop along with adding some scoring drives off the dribble.
It's possible that White comes in and immediately takes the reigns as the team's best offensive player. But without an outside option to unclog the lanes, White will have little room to operate. What's not mentioned here that I've seen elsewhere is White's knack for the assist. That's great for a big man to have as he's being double-teamed in the post. But, again, we need an outside shooter to make defenses pay.
Trevor Mbakwe: A Minnesota product who comes to the Gophers from Marquette via Miami Dade Community College, Mbakwe is another interior option. At 6'8 and 220 pounds, Mbakwe is more of a long and athletic type of low post player with the ability to hit a 15 foot jumper, according to ESPN's scouts.
Along with White, RSIII, Iverson, Johnson and Carter, Mbakwe will add to what will be one of the Big Ten's best interior groups. Just two years after the Monson/Molinari regime ended--a regime that was always dominated on the inside--this group will represent a complete 180. Coach Smith has done a tremendous job shoring up his players in the paint.
Rodney Williams: Described as "off the charts athletic," Williams might be the most athletic recruit coming into the Big Ten. Athleticism is certainly one of Minnesota's needs, and Williams should be able to get to the basket against most competition. But he isn't exactly a shooter at this point. From ESPN.
Williams is an above the rim highlight in transition. Catching lobs is his specialty. Williams also scores with a one or two dribble pull up going to his right or a running floater where he uses his leaping ability and length to score over opponents. Skill development must be at the top of his list to be successful in college. Williams struggled to score in a half court setting. He must work on his overall shooting and ball handling. He didn't look comfortable shooting the three or making scoring moves off the dribble (Timberwolve Shootout). He also had trouble finishing at times once he got to the rim because he seem to be anticipating contact instead of attacking the basket.
If Williams can put together a respectable outside game, he could dominate the Big Ten eventually. But his current struggles in the half court and lack of comfort shooting from the outside will reinforce Minnesota's current weaknesses.
Make no mistake, I think Williams is a tremendous addition and will eventually add quite a bit. But I'm not sure he addresses the team's most dire need: A consistent scorer from the outside.
Justin Cobbs: A point guard that will probably be given every chance to win the starting point guard job, Cobbs has earned a reputation as a talented point guard with upside. Interesting analysis here.
Cobbs is one of the most debatable players on the west coast. On the one hand, his competiveness, athleticism, and improved skill are attractive to any coach on any level. However, his decision-making (specifically his shot selection), is troublesome to say the least. He takes very difficult shots early in the shot clock that leave you shaking your head, but there is no question he is a talent. He is extremely explosive in the open court and is very strong going to the basket and had some of the most acrobatic finishes of the tournament (Mission Prep Christmas Classic). He can knock down the 3-point shot and he gets great lift on it.
No doubt that Cobbs' competitiveness is what drew Coach Smith to him. And it's great to see that Cobbs is confident shooting the rock. But Tubby has a short leash and will not put up with out of control shot selection. It'll be intersting to see where Cobbs shakes out next year. Will he earn time at the point? If he does, will Devoe Joseph slide over into the two-guard slot? No matter what happens, Cobbs might be the most important member of this class. If he pans out into a solid point guard who can score, then Minnesota will be scary for the next few years. If not, the Gophers will continue to have the same problems they've been having.
Bryant Allen: A Missouri native who signed a letter of intent to play for Coach Brewster, Allen could be another member of Minnesota's backcourt. At 6' 160, Allen is a point guard who is described as a streaky outside shooter who is very quick and athletic off the dribble. If he plays basketball, he too will be in the mix at the point guard spot.
Conclustion: Each of the incoming recruits could be very good in a number of areas. But in looking at the common perceptions surrounding each of them, I'm not sure this incoming recruiting class has addressed the team's most dire need, that is, finding a guard who can score consistently from the outside.
In fairness, when Smith was putting this class together the largest perceived weakness was a lack of a stable inside presence. No doubt that has been addressed. And Williams' athleticism will be great to see in Williams Arena. But unless Williams, Cobbs, Allen, or current guards Nolen, Westbrook, Joseph or Hoffarber begin to hit shots from the outside, next year's team, while tougher on the inside, might suffer from the same issues.