Coach: Tubby Smith
Years at school: 5 (103-64 all-time)
Best NCAA Tournament finish: NCAA first round (2009, 2010)
|Vital Info: No. 22 Minnesota|
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Last season's record: 23-15 (NIT)
Notable returnees from last season: Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams, Austin Hollins, Andre Hollins, Julian Welch, Joe Coleman, Maurice Walker, Elliott Eliason
Notable loss from last season: Ralph Sampson III
Notable newcomers: Wally Ellenson, Charles Buggs
Projected starters: G; Austin Hollins G: Andre Hollins G: Joe Coleman F: Rodney Williams F: Trevor Mbakwe
Why this team will be good: Tubby Smith is a heck of a coach, especially when he has talent, and the Gophers certainly have more than enough of that to find themselves in the Big Ten race. A year ago, without his best player, Smith still found a way to win 23 games. Now Trevor Mbakwe -- who averaged 14 points and 9.1 boards in seven games last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury, is back. The Gophers have an all-Hollins backcourt with Austin and Andre -- and Rodney Williams is finally starting to show the potential that made him a heralded recruit coming out of high school. The lone loss from last year's team was that of Ralph Sampson III, and the son of the former NBA big man was a major disappointment, averaging just 7.9 points and 4.6 boards per contest. In addition to the Hollins' (who aren't related), Minnesota has guards Julian Welch and Joe Coleman back -- and also adds talented freshman Wally Ellenson. The hope is that big man Maurice Walker, who has missed his first two seasons, can finally be healthy to provide depth and bulk up front.
Why this team might disappoint: If Mbakwe doesn't come back at or near full-strength, this group will be much like they were a year ago: Mediocre. Sure, they won 23 games -- but went just 6-12 in Big Ten play. Mbakwe is one of the top rebounders in the country when healthy -- and is also terrific in transition. He's a difference-maker and takes much of the pressure off guys like Williams and the Hollins'. Without him, there's just not enough -- especially down low. The guards are solid, but not quite enough to carry the team. Williams is a perfect sidekick, but can't be counted upon to be a star -- largely due to his inconsistency. Smith needs to make sure his perimeter guys take care of the ball this season. Last season the decision-making wasn't pretty and that must improve for the Gophers to take the next step.
Bottom line: Smith is a proven X's and O's guy. He won at Tulsa, Georgia and also at Kentucky. He's gone to a pair of NCAA tournaments in five seasons at Minnesota -- and it would have been three if Mbakwe hadn't gone down with a torn ACL on Nov. 27. Give him enough talent and he's a virtual lock to get to the NCAA tournament. With Mbakwe, the Gophers have enough. But Smith needs an effective Mbakwe -- and that means he'll need to regain most of the athleticism following the knee injury. Austin Hollins is a junior and Andre Hollins, who needs to improve his decision-making, has a year under his belt. However, it ultimately comes down to Mbakwe and Williams. Those two guys are both capable of playing with just about anyone in the country. If Mbakwe is healthy and Williams plays to his potential, this team could challenge for one of the top spots in the Big Ten. If not, Smith & Co. will likely be headed back to the NIT.
Quote from an opposing coach in the league: "The thing that's going to be interesting is whether they play Rodney Williams at the three or the four -- and whether they play Trevor Mbakwe at the four or the five. I'd play Williams at the four, because he was definitely more effective there last year, and go with Mbakwe at the five.