Minnesota Basketball Preview: #18
Overall Rank: #18
Conference Rank: #5 Big Ten Conference
2008-09: 22-11, 9-9
2008-09 postseason: NCAA
Coach: Tubby Smith (42-25 at Minnesota, 429-170 overall)
Minnesota returns its top nine scorers and brings in a great recruiting class from a team that went to the NCAA Tournament. So what is stopping the Golden Gophers from potentially being a great team? It certainly is not Coach Tubby Smith. Coach Smith has done a great job turning Minnesota around. The reason Minnesota will not dominate the Big Ten is because the rest of the Big Ten is too good for the Gophers to waltz through the conference.
Key Losses: G Jamal Abu-Shamala, G Travis Busch
One thing Coach Smith is doing is keeping the talent in Minnesota in Minnesota. Royce White earned the state’s Mr. Basketball award and the 6-7 forward should immediately make an impact. Rodney Williams is another 6-7 forward from Minnesota, but he is a small forward who can attack the basket while White is more of a back to the basket player. The frontcourt also gets a more experienced player with junior college transfer Trevor Mbakwe. The lone newcomer on the perimeter is Justin Cobbs, who will be in for a big challenge if he expects to play much at all as a freshman.
The Gophers have a trio of experienced scorers on the roster. Al Nolen averaged 6.5 points per game, but it was his ability to find his teammates that makes him so valuable. Nolen dished out 4.3 assists per game and only turned it over 1.7 times. Most of those assists went to Lawrence Westbrook. Not only is Westbrook the most prolific shooter on the team, but he can also get to the basket and finish. Blake Hoffarber is a clutch shooter who can knock down the outside shot with relative consistency and could step into a starting role at times when Coach Smith wants to play small. Add emerging sophomore Devoe Joseph and senior Devron Bostick to the mix and the Gophers have a deep and talented perimeter group.
Damian Johnson has turned into a consistent interior scorer. The 6-8 forward is the experienced option in the paint and has enough versatility to spend some time at the small forward position. On a team that has a very balanced attack, Johnson could be one of the few players who averages double figures in the scoring column. Paul Carter should be a reliable reserve forward yet again, but Colton Iverson has the potential to turn into a big time player. The 6-10, 235 pound South Dakota native averaged 5.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks as a freshman. He did not finish the season very strong, but a year in the program should fix that problem.
Who to Watch:
As much potential as Iverson has, it is Ralph Sampson III who could turn into the next superstar at Minnesota. He tallied 6.3 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.5 rebounds as a freshman and is ready to explode as a sophomore. At 6-11 and 230 pounds, Sampson III certainly has the size to dominate the paint and he has already shown that he can do it.
This is a team that could go 11 deep, and it would be a very talented 11. The Golden Gophers have a nice mix of experience and young talent and a great coach who can lead them through any tough stretches during conference play. That all adds up to another trip to the NCAA Tournament and possibly a win or two once they get there.
Projected Post-season Tournament: NCAA
Projected Starting Five:
Al Nolen, Junior, Guard, 6.5 points per game
Lawrence Westbrook, Senior, Guard, 12.6 points per game
Damian Johnson, Senior, Forward, 9.8 points per game
Colton Iverson, Sophomore, Forward, 5.4 points per game
Ralph Sampson III, Sophomore, Center, 6.3 points per game
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