5 Reasons Gopher Basketball Finishes in Big 10’s Top 3

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Tubby Smith

Royce White gone, Cory Joseph never arriving, leading scorer graduated, no impact recruits.

Now that we have the negatives out of the way, it’s time to flip the script and turn our attention to the optimism flying around the Minnesota Gophers Basketball program with the top five things that could lead the Gophers to the top of the Big Ten conference.

1.  Tubby Smith. Could it be any more obvious?  The man that has 17 consecutive 20-win seasons and 16 tournament appearances in that time is back with a team that could go a number of ways.  The thing about great coaches is they usually don’t settle for the season going the wrong way, and Smith has managed great results with worse teams than this.  The losses of Lawrence Westbrook, Damian Johnson, and Paul Carter just to name a few will hurt, but it’s nothing one of the best coaches in the nation can’t handle.

2.  Inner-program additions. Al Nolen missed the second half of last season with academic issues and Trevor Mbakwe never saw the floor amid a legal dispute, so these two are kind of like newcomers.  Nolen may be the best on-ball defender in the country and if he can find the slash and dish game that has made him effective on the offensive end of the court, this team will be hard to stop.  As for Mbakwe, he is a mystery, having not seen a college basketball court in over a year and a half.  He has been highly touted for years and his hard-nosed defensive approach combined with his knack for rebounding will be integral to fixing a big problem area the Gophers had last year.  Should Mbakwe bring the inside game and athleticism he has become known for, expect big things.

Al nolen

3.  Twin Towers. They have not earned the nickname given to them when they came to the U in 2008, but a slow and steady progression has been seen from Colton Iverson and even more so with Ralph Sampson III.  Sampson’s length and improved offensive game, with even an occasional three mixed in, along with his defensive prowess were assets to the Gophers last conference season when Iverson was virtually absent.  Iverson put up similar numbers in his sophomore season as he did in his junior campaign, but his drastic spike in production in the Gophers’ Big Ten Tournament run and NCAA tournament game were much needed signs of life.  Both will need to get stronger on the boards, as that was an issue for the Gophers last year, but with Mbakwe’s addition, perhaps a continued improvement on the offensive side of the ball is what the Gophers really need from the twin towers.

4.  The Press. Early last year, the Gophers employed a pressing style of defense that forced opponents into mistakes and led to some of the offense’s biggest games because of the easy baskets the Gophers were producing.  When Nolen was declared ineligible, Tubby went away from that scheme, leading to an offensively challenged second half of the conference year.  This season Nolen is back, and despite one of the biggest components of the press, Johnson, being gone, Rodney Williams should be able to fill in nicely with his length and athleticism in Johnson’s spot.  Tubby would be wise to stick with the press this year, because when it was rolling the Gophers were unstoppable.

Rodney Williams

5.  The Truth of the Rodney Williams “myth.”  There has been a myth perpetuated by the media, NBA draft prognosticators, and delusional Minnesota fans that Rodney Williams is ready for a breakout season.  Without ripping that theory apart too much, simply put those that expect such a thing are sipping the same Kool-Aid Timberwolves fans were sipping thinking they would win more than 25 games.  Williams has done nothing to warrant hype of being a first round draft choice or even a consistent contributor to this team.  However, should he be able to turn the myths of his basketball talent into truth this season, the Gophers could be a sleeper to make a run at the Big Ten title.  At the moment he is only athletic, but if he has added a jumper and starts to use his tools on the defensive end as well, it might be what brings this team from middle-of-the-pack to top dog of the conference.

-Mike Gallagher is a frequent contributor to thesportsbank.net and co-host of Minnesota sports talk show The Backdoor Cut on KAUG.

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