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Gophers Basketball 2008-09: What Went Right

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I've been meaning for a couple weeks now to start looking back on the season that was for Tubby Smith's basketball team. But I think I needed some time to turn my attention to other things before reflecting in any sort of meaningful way.

While there were many things that we would have liked to happen differently, the season by and large was a success. The Gophers made the NCAA Tournament two years after finishing with a depressing nine wins. That allowed a very young team, with every important contributor returning, a chance to taste March Madness. That bodes well for future iterations of our favorite maroon and gold basketball team.

So, after the jump I'm going to layout a handful of things that went right. In the coming days I'll look at what didn't go so well, but I'm opting to start with the positive! Feel free to add your own as well.

Ralph Sampson III: At the beginning of the year the freshman looked like he didn't belong. It looked like he might have risen up scouting boards based on his lineage. He was being outplayed early on by fellow freshman big man Colton Iverson.

But Sampson reportedly took it upon himself to put in the extra hours. It showed. As the Big Ten season wore on, Sampson became quite the force for a freshman underneath. He blocked shots. He fought for rebounds. He showed an above average ability to pass the ball from the post.  He showed signs of developing an inside game. He wasn't perfect by any means, and he needs to continue to work on his outside shot if he's going to take it.

I've been thinking of it this way. During the Kansas championship run of one year ago, Minnesota product Cole Aldrich was mostly relegated to spot duty for the Jayhawks. This year he was a dominant force. Sampson might not be that dominant, but he was better as a freshman then Aldrich was. I expect good things to come.

Half-court defense: Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the Dan Monson era was the on-your-heels defensive approach. Instead of pressuring opponents, Monson usually played a softer defensive style to mask an athleticism discrepency with many opponents. Two years into the Tubby Smith era we can know one thing for sure heading into most any game: The Gophers are going to play agressive defense.

The half-court defense wasn't perfect by any stretch. But for the most part, the Gophers clogged the lanes, played help defense very well, rotated and made life just plain difficult for most opponents. When the Gophers were winning, it was because of an intense half-court team defense approach. That would lead to turnovers and transition points. I look forward to the half-court defense improving as the team's athleticism increases with incoming recruits.

Increased Athletcism: It's still not great, but with the addition of Paul Carter, Devoe Joseph, Ralph Sampson III, and to a lesser extent Devron Bostick, the Gophers were able to do a number of things the Lawrence McKenzie, Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson Gophers couldn't.

Paul Carter can get to the basket off of the dribble. Joseph can push tempo as a point guard much more efficiently than McKenzie ever could (not McKenzie's fault, btw, he wasn't a point guard). And Sampson was able to fight on the boards in a way Tollackson never could. It also allowed the Gophers to do more in transition and press more effectively at times.

Improved Rebounding: After the undefeated non-conference season, I came home to Minneapolis for New Year's and found tickets for the Big Ten opener against Michigan State. I don't have to look up the numbers to remember just how thoroughly the Spartans whipped the Gophers on the glass.

Well, Tubby Smith and the Gophers quite obviously addressed that weakness and rebounding became a strength for the team by year's end. Carter's athleticism helped the Gophers tremendously on the glass. Sampson and Iverson did well inside for freshman. And the guards eventually realized rebounding was about "want to."

Sweeping Wisconsin: Because it was great and it still feels good thinking about it!

Breaking the Illini curse: After years of ineptitude and bad fate against Illinois, the Gophers held Bruce Weber's troops to under 40 points during a mid-season win. Getting that monkey off of Minnesota's back was important for the program if for no other reason than it doesn't need to be the lead in every article for the coming years before the two teams face off.