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The Future of The Gopher Backcourt, Freshman Guards Under Tubby Smith

There have not been very many bright spots this year for the Gopher basketball team. What began as a season of promise quickly vanished with the tear of a ligament in Trevor Mbakwe's knee. But as we get past the half-way point of the Big Ten season (and two-thirds of the way through the regular season), maybe there is some hope for the future and a glimmer of hope for this one yet. I do believe that we are watching the maturation of a couple freshman guards who could become key components if the Gopher basketball program is to have any significant success in the next few years.

Joe Coleman is having a very nice freshman season for the Gophers. He started out rather slow, earned himself a spot in the starting lineup and has blossomed into one of the leaders on the floor for the Golden Gophers. But not to be forgotten in Andre Hollins who has had a very different freshman season so far. He earned the starting PG job early but slowly saw his playing time diminish as he struggled at the start of Big Ten play but he too is starting to show signs of why he was Tennessee's Mr. Basketball and a reason for Gopher fans to be excited about the future.

Neither of these two are exactly lighting the Big Ten on fire but I do believe they are showing what they are capable of and they are going to be very good players for the next four years. I believe there is reason for backcourt optimism.

Let's start with Joe. The Hopkins product has really been a catalyst for some renewed enthusiasm for the 2011-12 team. After Mbakwe went down this team was really searching for an identity and some toughness. It took a while but once Coleman was inserted into the starting lineup he finally gave this team the toughness it was missing. Is he having a freshman season like say Cody Zeller of Indiana or Trey Burke at Michigan? No, but just because he isn't going to be considered for any national all-freshman teams doesn't mean that he isn't having an outstanding season that could be a portend of great things.

His freshman numbers are actually very good especially when compared to several other freshman guards in the Tubby Smith era. I compiled the stats for only the first 10 Big Ten games of Devoe Joseph, Austin Hollins, Chip Armelin and then this year's freshmen Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman (numbers are below the jump). This is obviously a very small sample size but I also think it is a fair comparison to get an idea of where Coleman and Hollins are at in their progress and how Tubby is using them compared to the rest on that list.

Joe's numbers jump out and dominate. He leads that group in scoring, rebounding, FG%, steals and minutes played. And the number that probably jumps off the page more than anything else is how many times he has gotten himself to the free throw line. He has used his aggressiveness to get to the line 55 times in 10 games. The other four guards combine for 36 free throw attempts! But this is the kind of contribution that was expected of Coleman if he was going to be given the opportunity. Coleman had this to say way back in October on the Gopher's public practice to open the season (whatever their Midnight Madness equivalent was called).

"I'm going to be an aggressor. I'm going to try to get to the line, get to the basket a lot and help my team anyway I can."

This he has done. Coleman is getting to the line, making his free throws and doing a number of other things very well to contribute to the Gophers getting back on track. If he is to continue to get better his three-point shooting will need to dramatically improve. But given his reported work ethic I actually expect this to improve with an offseason to focus on it. I am absolutely ecstatic to watch Coleman over the next four years as I think he will be an outstanding Gopher.

His backcourt mate is, of course, Andre Hollins. The Tennessee Mr. Basketball was given the starting PG job to start the season. After a minor injury and a period where he wasn't playing his best basketball he lost his starting spot. But to be fair he has still been relatively productive, enough to lead me to believe that he will still have a very nice Gopher career. Also from the season opening practice, Tubby had this to say about his freshman point guard.

"Very strong, very physical and he's a leading candidate to start for u sat the point guard spot. Can score, you know we really didn't have that last year, we didn't have a real scoring point guard."

I was a little surprised to see just how similar Dre's first 10 B1G game stats were to those of Devoe Joseph's. Both averaged 1.3 reb, 1.4 assists and turnovers were nearly identical. I kind of think these two are similar, yet different players. Hollins is more of a "get to the basket" kind of guy while Joseph is a better shooter. But both are in the mold of a scoring guard slash point guard.

Min FGM-FGA FG% 3PM-3PA 3P% FTM-FTA FT% Reb Ast Stl TO Pts
Devoe Joseph 16.0 20-48 0.417 9-27 0.333 0-1 - 1.3 1.4 1.1 1.9 4.9
Andre Hollins 15.1 15-47 0.319 5-19 0.263 14-15 0.933 1.3 1.4 0.9 1.8 4.7

Devoe had slightly more points and was a better three-point shooter. But Andre actually gets to the FT line and has slightly fewer turnovers. All to say that if we can start getting 12-14 ppg out of Hollins over the next few years, similar to the production that Joseph put out, then we'll all be pretty happy with him as a solid scoring option. Like Coleman, I expect his three-point shooting to improve. It will not get to the same level as Joseph, but Hollins will be a more complete player in my opinion.

The stats for all five players are at the bottom for your enjoyment. These numbers, to some extent, and watching both of them progress throughout the season lead me to believe that they are both going to be very good players. Both are talented enough to be all-conference caliber players but neither are quite good enough to be leaving early for the NBA. These are the kinds of kids you can build around and who can really lead a team in their upper-classmen years.

More quotes from Tubby at the beginning of the season.

"I can’t say enough about how committed and how dedicated those two guys are. They never missed anything. They never missed a class, a meeting, a workout."

"We only have 2 freshman and they're really very talent and they are men of character. Guys that are working extremely hard, they came in the summer and lifted and did all the things we asked him to"

"In tough times you have to have people that are going to be able to withstand a lot of distractions, can handle the peaks and the valleys. I thin men of character, people that come from backgrounds where they understand and they appreciated what they've accomplished and what's available to them at the U. And are committed and dedicated to doing things the right way. That's what I like about these guys, they are good people."

Those quotes were noteworthy enough that I saved them back in October and nothing I have seen to day leads me to believe that every word of it isn't true. Add to these two the toughness of Elliott Eliason and the shooting of Oto Oseneiks and you can start to see some of the puzzle pieces. More needs to be added, especially on the interior where we currently have no real scoring options as I look ahead. In fact if Mbakwe comes back, next year could be a very exciting season.

Now, here is where I try to reign in my enthusiasm. These guys are not there yet. They are not going to be named on any All-American lists before they are done (or it is VERY unlikely but you never know). There are plenty of things they need to work on. Both need to become better shooters, both need to work on their ball-handling and both need to get stronger as they prepare for 30+ minutes every night. But I am liking what I'm seeing and I think the future of the Gopher backcourt is in better shape than people are currently feeling.

stats I referenced...

Min FGM-FGA FG% 3PM-3PA 3P% FTM-FTA FT% Reb Ast Stl TO Pts
Devoe Joseph 16.0 20-48 0.417 9-27 0.333 0-1 - 1.3 1.4 1.1 1.9 4.9
Andre Hollins 15.1 15-47 0.319 5-19 0.263 14-15 0.933 1.3 1.4 0.9 1.8 4.7
Joe Coleman 22.7 24-53 0.453 0-3 0.000 43-55 0.782 3.8 1 1.3 1.3 8.9
Chip Armelin 10.2 15-40 0.375 0-8 0.000 2-5 0.400 1.1 1.1 0.3 0.2 3.2
Austin Hollins 11.8 12-30 0.400 2-13 0.154 12-15 0.800 1.1 0.3 0.9 0.9 3.8