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.
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.