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Gopher basketball fans have a lot to look forward to next season and it all starts with our star forwards. Rodney Williams emerged down the stretch last year as one of the best forwards in the conference and Trevor Mbakwe returns as one of the most feared power forwards in the nation.
I already discussed the backcourt and how they too are going to be vital to the successes or failures of this year's Gopher squad. But the headline grabbers, at least to start the season, are clearly in the frontcourt. But to be honest there are still a lot of questions facing this group and past performance is really no guarantee of future success.
Trevor Mbakwe is a potential All-American power forward. He was dominant as a junior averaging 14 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. He was also having a very strong start to his senior season before tearing his ACL in early December. But Mbakwe is was given the gift of a 6th year of eligibility and instantly the outlook for Gopher basketball 2012-13 became much more interesting. Mbakwe is a physical beast. He rebounds with authority and will be one of the top rebounders in the Big Ten. He is a physical defender who usually keeps his feet on the ground and makes opponents go through him or over him. Offensively he is not going to knock down very many jump shots, but he is very good at getting near the hoop and exploding up to the rim. He is strong enough that few can stop him at this range and he tends to have more dunks per game than most.
Mbakwe isn't perfect. He struggles with free throw shooting, which is too bad because he gets to the line a LOT. He struggles hitting any jumpshot outside of a few feet. And while he is arguably our best player, he isn't really a go-to scorer because of how he tends to get his points. But with a strong compliment of players around him, Mbakwe is going to give you 14-16 points and 9-11 rebounds per game. The way that he finishes at the rim, giving him a high FG percentage, and the way that he ends possessions with rebounds makes him incredibly valuable. There may not be another power forward in college basketball that I'd rather have.
Alongside of Mbakwe is Rodney Williams and one could make the case that these two in the frontcourt are as good as any in the country. Williams has spent most of his career as a small forward, but when Mbakwe was lost to injury last season he slid over to PF and really blossomed. His leaping ability, his ability to pull bigger forwards out to the perimeter and his athleticism made him a match-up nightmare. Last year Williams averaged 12.2 points per game but like Andre Hollins he really turned it on down the stretch averaging 18.3 in the seven post season games the Gophers participated in.
Williams improved his FG% and his 3 point % last year, but hitting baskets from the outside is still not a real strength of his. I do expect that he'll hit slightly above 30% of his threes this year and I desperately hope he dramatically improves on his 59% free throw %. Defensively I believe that Williams is great and terrible. He is one of the best shot-blockers in the Big Ten and Williams has good anticipation to get his hands on passes for dunks. On the ball he is a solid defender, especially against guys who are his size (smaller, quicker forwards are tougher). Where he struggles is on his weakside, off the ball defense. Far too often he will not be in the right position on the helpside (especially when he is two passes away), the offense will penetrate but he is too deep in the lane to cut it off in time and when the ball is kicked out to his man but Rodney is too far away to defend the wide open jump shot. I will admit that this did improve throughout the season but during lapses of concentration, these bad habits come back quickly. Rodney also LOVES to block shots and will occasionally get him into foul trouble.
I am very excited to see these two together and I expect that you will see a lot of minutes where Mbakwe is playing C with Williams at the PF in what is really going to be a two forward offense. I'm sure you all remember the high-low offense with Ralph and Trevor. I suspect we will see much of that offense again this year but with the added threat of Williams up top being able to put the ball on the floor. When Mbakwe rotates up to the top, Williams should get a very favorable match-up where he can out-leap his defender and get an easy two. This is going to be a dangerous frontcourt that should defend well, rebound great and be able to score a lot of points.
Coming off the bench, and potentially starting at center, will be sophomore Elliott Eliason. The big man from Nebraska appeared in all 38 games last year, starting 11 of them and averaged 15 min, 2.6 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. He is a tough kid, he does a nice job utilizing his 6'11" frame on defense and is a solid Big Ten big man. As mentioned, it is possible that Eliason starts some games at center while Mbakwe is eased back into the lineup. I think the most likely scenario will be EE coming off the bench to go with a "big" lineup or obviously to give Williams or Mbakwe time to catch their breath on the bench. You will never see me type the words "dynamic" or "explosive" when talking about Eliason. But he does bring a very solid, defensive presence to the paint. Reliable, solid and tough are words that adequately describe what EE brings to the Gophers this year.
Maurice Walker might be the biggest question mark this coming season. Mo is a 6'10" sophomore who tore an ACL just 12 games into the 2010-11 season. He was unable to get a medical redshirt for that, his freshman, season. It was then decided that he take a redshirt year last year to fully heal from the ACL and get himself back into basketball shape. In Walker's brief stint as a Gopher, most of us were impressed. He is a very skilled big man who showed flashes of being a great passer in the post. He is a big man but has nimble feet for a guy weighing about 290. In my head he has a similar skill set to Draymond Green. I'm not saying he IS Draymond Green or will be as good as Draymond Green, but they have a similar set of strengths and weaknesses.
When I observed Walker at the All-Star Friday Night event I didn't think he moved particularly well but I also believe that when it comes to game-time he will move much better. Ralph Sampson III averaged 23 minutes per game last year, those minutes will be consumed by Eliason getting a few more and Walker getting probably 12-16 of them. Do not expect someone who plays above the rim, but I do expect Walker will be tough, physical and capable of scoring from the post.
Oto Osenieks is likely going to see most of his minutes on the perimeter at SF. The Latvian forward's percentage from behind the arc was not too impressive and not necessarily indicative of his shooting ability. Stretching the defense by knocking down threes when the defense focuses on the rest of the lineup will be Oto's greatest contribution to the team. He is an decent defender who will struggle with quicker, more athletic small forwards. He is a solid rebounder and passer. 10-14 minutes per game is about what I expect out of the 6'7" shooter. Occasionally he'll hit a few open threes and contribute 10-12 points and others he'll be a non-factor offensively (how is that for brilliant and in depth analysis).
Andre Ingram is a JUCO transfer who was a non-factor for nearly all of what was his first year with the program. Even after Mbakwe went down for the season, the power forward never really took advantage of his minutes opportunity. Well, almost never took advantage. From the beginning of the Big Ten season through the Big Ten Tournament Ingram scored at TOTAL of 10 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. That is an average of 0.77 points and 1.08 rebounds in the 13 games he participated, while not recording any minutes in seven games. But then the NIT came, Ralph Sampson III was injured and Ingram finally took advantage of his minutes. In those five post-season games Ingram averaged 5.2 points and 4 rebounds! Not exactly all-american caliber numbers but those are significantly better than his previous 25 games. So the question becomes, what can we expect from Ingram this year? With Mbakwe coming back, Maurice Walker likely getting some minutes in the paint and Rodney Williams playing more power forward I'm not sure Ingram will get more than the 8.8 minutes he averaged last year. But I do think he will contribute more in his 8 minutes with increased points and rebounds per game. He is a strong and physical player who is an asset defensively and on the glass.
Lastly we get to the freshman, Charles Buggs who comes to the Gophers via the prep school route so he is a year older than a typical true freshman and still has four years of eligibility. Buggs is a lanky 6'8" who has drawn some comparisons to Damian Johnson. If he is half of the defensive player that DJ Swat was, then it was a great signing. Whether or not Buggs redshirts is the big question here. While there is some solid frontcourt depth for the Gophers, it isn't as though he has McDonald's All-Americans that he has to pass on the depth chart. And couple guys have some injury concerns. So if Buggs proves himself valuable, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, there is a chance he could see good minutes. Assuming everyone is healthy, I would bet that he gets redshirted.
Overall this is a solid group that has a couple injury concerns and then a couple of stars who may be the best set of forwards in the conference. I like this group's toughness and physicality. I am expecting the Gophers to be one of the top rebounding teams in the conference and opposing coaches will be losing sleep over how to defend this explosive interior.