For the first time in Tubby Smith's four seasons manning the sidelines for the Golden Gophers, he might finally have a team that can bang in the paint with the best the BIg Ten has to offer.
The Gophers grabbed an early lead and kept control of Friday's game against Wofford at Williams Arena in large part becuase they controlled the paint. Junior center Ralph Sampson III had 20-13-3 as the Gophers led throughtout in a 69-55 opening night win over Wofford.
Colton Iveron added 8 points and 9 boards. And Trevor Mbakwe, boy it was good to see this kid finally get on the floor. Coming off the bench, his athleticism, size and strength were a tremendous asset. He finished with 14 and 10 in a great debut. It's hard to believe that Mbakwe is the Gophers' first true power forward since Dan Coleman.
The Gophers handled Wofford despite getting nothing from Blake Hoffarber. The senior sharp-shooter couldn't find an opening all night. Hoffarber finished with 2 points, but led the team with 6 assists. But the Gophers were able to survive an invisible Hoffarber because they had enough talent on the interior.
"I feel a lot more free this year" Sampson said after the game. "If teams look to focus on Colton or (myself), we also have the aggressive and athletic Trevor Mbakwe, as well. If they try to double team one of us, I feel like we are all three great passers."
Sampson is right. Last year the Gophers played two centers in Sampson and Iverson and two tweener small forwards in Damian Johnson and Paul Carter. The addition of Mbakwe for the next two years gives the Gophers the best front-court they've had in years.
More after the jump on all the newcomers who got on the court and more.
Some other thoughts on last night's game.
- Sampson's 20 points came in a variety of ways. He slammed home the ball after a pick-and-roll with Al Nolen. He hit a three and scored on the block. Sampson clearly has the green-light to shoot from the outside. When he catches and shoots, his shot looks great. When he hesitates, cluthes or jab steps before he shoots, he's off.
- Four freshman played and Chip Armelin stood out in a big way. A quick, left-handed shooting guard out of Louisiana, Armelin hit his first three as a Gopher. He swung the ball on offense confidently. He handled the ball confidently. He attacked the rim aggressively. He scored 11 points in 12 minutes. Armelin slightly reminded me of Clem Haskins-era Gopher Charles Thomas.
- Austin Hollins and Maverick Ahanmisi played 9 and 7 minutes respectively. They both looked like freshman, but didn't stand out in a positive or negative way.
- Maurice Walker is a big boy. Wow. I hadn't seen him yet. On a couple plays last night he wasn't quick enough in the post with his hands or his feet. On another play, however, a Wofford guard was running through the lane, hit Walker and fell over. The Gophers stole the ball as a result.
- The Gophers hit just three shots from beyond the arc last night. Sampson was 1-3. Nolen was 1-3 and Armelin was 1-2. They were 3-15 as a team.
- Wofford had a chance to win this game, but they shot an ugly 3-16 from three. While Minnesota's team defense at times was very good, and their presence on the glass was good, Wofford did have myriad open looks. Had they taken advantage of even a few more of them, this game could have looked quite different.
- Nolen had 8 points, 3 assists and 3 turnovers in his first game back after sitting out the second-half of last year. For the most part, Nolen did well to get the Gophers going early with their plan to pound the ball inside. He finished a couple of times around the basket and looked like he was still able to take the ball to the rack.
- I was impressed with Rodney Williams. He only had 6 points, but that easily could have been 10 or 12. He took the ball to the hole. Was he explosive in doing so? No, but he was controlled. He handled the ball well while driving. He used his length and phyisicality well. His outside shot doesn't look any different, but if Williams can be an effective slasher, the Gophers will be much better because of it.
All in all it was a good first win for the Gophers. On to Siena Monday night.