Losing your 2009-10 leading scorer, your best overall defender, and then right before the season your team’s most explosive scorer sounds like a lot to deal with for a program.
Apparently it’s not.
The Minnesota Gophers are out to their hottest start in the Tubby Smith tenure this year, busting out five quick wins against excellent competition, and winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in the process.
Minnesota has already knocked off four of last year’s NCAA tournament teams (Wofford, North Carolina, Siena, West Virginia), on their way to jumping to #15 in the AP poll, their highest rank since an illegitimate #3 rank in 1997.
One of the shining stars on this team so far has been Trevor Mbakwe, who has not disappointed in his much awaited debut.
Mbakwe’s 14 points and 9.4 rebounds a game lead the team, and for his impressive performance in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off shared Big Ten Player of the Week honors with Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger.
Along with Mbakwe, there have been a number of other pleasant surprises for Tubby Smith’s squad.
Despite being without Devoe Joseph because of a suspension for violation of team rules, the Gophers have found scoring to not be an issue.
With Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson and Blake Hoffarber are both averaging over 13 points/gm, with the formerly offensively challenged Al Nolen checking in at 10/gm.
Along with being able to fill it up even without Joseph, the Gophers have also had enough in the tank to solve their other problem area early: rebounding.
The Gophers currently rank 85th in the nation on the glass and are outrebounding opponents by over five/gm.
Twin towers Sampson and Colton Iverson are giving nice support to Mbakwe, combining for over 14 rebounds/gm.
Iverson in particular has been making the most of his opportunities on the court.
In only 17 minutes/gm he is managing eight points and six rebounds per contest, while shooting nearly 58% from the field.
Numbers like this bring Gopher fans back to Iverson’s freshman year when he put up a less gaudy five and four a game but was extremely efficient at 60% from the floor. Perhaps a simple sophomore slump could be blamed for Iverson’s lack of improvement last year, and he seems to have put it behind him.
While there are bright spots and practically nothing to rip the team on to this point, history should be pointed to as a red flag for this early season swoon of success.
In the 2008-09 season, the Gophers got out to a hot start, beating then #9 Louisville on their way to an undefeated non-conference season and climbing to as high as #17 in the AP poll.
Minnesota only managed a 9-9 Big Ten record that year, and were blown out by a much-superior Texas team in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The Gophers opponent in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge that year? Virginia.
Ditto for this year, and while it’s probably coincidence, still serves as an eerie reminder that there is a lot of year left.
The Gophers should roll through the rest of their non-conference schedule, with the only other opponent of note being the Cavaliers, and since this is not the Gophers football program, their December 23rd opponent South Dakota State should not strike fear into their hearts.
There’s optimism, and deservedly so, this is a fun time of year for Gophers fans. But when it comes down to it, seasons are made in March, not November. Tubby has been here before, and I’m sure he’s preaching that lesson to his guys every practice.
-Mike GallagherFollow paulmbanks