Five Reasons Gopher Basketball Will Be Alright

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By Mike Gallagher

In a weekend filled with excitement for University of Minnesota basketball, some came out of the third annual 76 Classic a little disappointed.   The Gophers haven’t played in a tournament this publicized and full of big name programs in recent memory, so just being in it at all was exciting.  Two losses, both to unranked teams, wasn’t exactly what Tubby Smith had in mind.

Having played three creampuff programs, there was really no measuring stick as to how good or bad the team can be.  This tournament was going to fuel a lot of speculation about the Gophers possibly being a top three Big Ten program.  While the two losses left a little something to be desired, there’s no need to fret Gopher fans, and here’s five reasons why.

1. The win over Butler. This was the game everyone pointed to in the non-conference season as the one to watch.  This is the only ranked team the Gophers have on the non-conference schedule, and they showed a lot of maturity and poise on their way to an 82-73 win.  The main thing that should be taken from this game is the depth they showed.  All ten guys came to play, and the difference was bench scoring, which the Gophers dominated 46-8.  This is the second year in a row the Gophers have beaten a top ten program in the non-conference season.  Before they beat Louisville last year, they hadn’t even scheduled a top 25 non-conference program since 2002-03.

2. The play of Colton Iverson. While being used off the bench in the first two games of the tournament, Iverson played well.  Specifically his 13 point, 11 rebound effort versus Butler was what earned him the start Saturday against Texas A&M.  He took advantage of the opportunity and looked very solid in the post on his way to a 14 point, 12 rebound effort.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as last year he showed offensive flashes on his way to shooting over 60% from the field.  If he can sustain these kind of performances along with Ralph Sampson III continuing to play consistently (seven points, seven boards per), it would add a very nice element inside for teams to think about on both ends of the floor.

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3. Rodney Williams Jr.’s disappearance. The man hyped to be the #3 pick in the 2011 NBA draft and the 18th best talent in the country according to nbadraft.net, took only three shots the whole tournament and was a non-factor.  So why exactly is this a good thing?  Because he produced absolutely nothing for the team and they still managed to beat a ranked team and play two other solid programs close.  Williams has proven to be an explosive scorer as well as a solid defender on the other end of the floor.  This is the first time he has faced legitimate competition, and now he has a feel for it.  He has plenty of time to adjust to the high level he faced against the three teams this weekend, and can hopefully get acclimated in time for the Big Ten season.  When he comes around, and he will come around, he’ll be yet another great weapon off the bench for Tubby’s squad.

4. The pending return of Trevor Mbakwe. That’s right, it looks like it’s right around the corner.  ESPN’s Andy Katz spoke with Tubby Smith before the start of the 76 classic, and Smith indicated that it looks as if the charges against Mbakwe are going to be dropped.  Some believe that when Mbakwe joins the team he should start right away, supplanting Williams/Paul Carter.  Of course it will take a little time to get him back in the flow of the game, so he’ll probably come off the bench at first.  However, if he is reinstated soon, don’t be surprised if he’s starting by the end of December.  Devron Bostick, who is also currently suspended, is supposedly going to be reinstated in time for the Miami game Wednesday, another tidbit Katz got out of Smith.  Bostick will bring another shooter to the team, and he’ll be able to stretch the floor so the lane will open up for Sampson and Iverson.  As for Royce White, his trial for the Macy’s theft is December 2nd and Smith indicated no timetable as to when his issues would be resolved.

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5. Defense. Holding three extremely competitive programs under 41% shooting from the floor is very impressive.  Making them turn the ball over a combined 54 times in three games isn’t too bad either.  Damian Johnson is the most complete player the Gophers have and that is especially evidenced on the defensive end.  He is averaging three steals and two blocks, both team highs. Paul Carter and Williams are very opportunistic, lanky, athletic defenders who have quick hands, so they can lock up the other teams best wing.  With Sampson and Iverson patrolling the paint and Nolan locking down the point with 2.5 steals/gm, opponents just don’t get anything easy.  At this point, the Gophers are allowing just 57 points/gm.

Even though the weekend could’ve been a little more lucrative in the wins department, don’t be discouraged Minnesota fans.  It’s still early, and if anything could be learned from this weekend, it’s that, for the first time in a while, the Gophers are a legitimate top 25 program.

For Tubby Smith and company, that’s something to be proud of.

Gophers Basketball Showing Depth Despite Off Court Troubles

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By Mike Gallagher

While Trevor Mbakwe was in suit and tie on the bench, Devron Bostick home sick, and Royce White nowhere to be found during the Gophers 82-42 drubbing of Stephen F. Austin, Rodney Williams Jr. was making the Williams Arena crowd forget those three were ever part of the Gophers 2009-10 plans.  The crowd began to chant his name after the third of his explosive dunks on the night.  He finished with 14 points after his 15 point effort vs. Tennessee Tech.

Williams has stepped up early, taking over for those that overshadowed him in this recruiting class.  Mbakwe and White, White being a top 50 recruit while Mbakwe took the JUCO route and greatly improved his stock coming to the D-1 ranks this year, were both expected to compete for time at the PF spot. Williams was not expected to play a lot this year with the addition of those two because of that.  But with Mbakwe and White out because of their problems with the law, Williams was called into duty. At this point, Williams is building a strong case to get playing time even if Mbakwe and White return.

His versatility has brought a great deal of flexibility to a lineup that is only dressing ten guys.  Junior starting forward Paul Carter is more suited to play the three rather than the four, so Williams stepped in at the four and the offense was much smoother in the second half, putting up a whopping 56 points.

Williams athleticism is not only an asset at the offensive end, but at the defensive end he is able to guard the power forward spot without a problem.  He will need to improve his strength in order to guard the spot consistently, but his leaping ability and speed make up for some of the muscle he may give away.  With him playing extensively at the three and four, the Gophers have held their two opponents under 30% from the field.

Another early surprise has been the play of Devoe Joseph, the backup at the point to Al Nolen.  He has averaged 11 a game over the first two contests as opposed to the five a game he gave them off the bench last year.

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Obviously it is early, but if he is relied on more this year and continues to get the opportunities to perform and can continue to put up points, putting him and Nolen in the backcourt together could be a nice look to throw at teams to give Lawrence Westbrook a rest.

The team will be able to experiment with that and many other things, as they will not be challenged by a majority of their non-conference opponents.

The matchups against Butler and Miami (FL), however, will be their two early season tests.  Those two games will be a good barometer of how this depth, specifically Williams and Joseph, will be able to hold up against, in Butler’s case, top competition.

The rest of the Gophers non-conference schedule is extremely soft as well, which should be a good thing for Tubby Smith and Co., as they’ll have some time to re-tool some things off those two big matchups, and get their feet under them headed into conference play.

Once it is clearer what exactly the future of Mbakwe and White are, I’ll give my Gophers season preview.  I choose to wait because those two would make this team drastically different.

However, even without those two, the team looks very impressive right now, and with a big thanksgiving matchup vs. aforementioned Butler right around the corner, it will make for some exciting early season drama.