Tubby Smith has to be on the hot seat, right? In his four years as Minnesota head coach, the Golden Gophers have not finished with a winning Big Ten record or picked up a NCAA Tournament victory. With a young roster and unproven backcourt, that trend will likely continue in 2011-2012.
The Achilles' heel for the Gophers last season was their guard play. With Devoe Joseph's off-the-court issues and eventual transfer, and Al Nolen sidelined with a broken foot, Minnesota's backcourt depth was depleted. Tubby was forced to play Blake Hoffarber out of position at the point, while freshmen Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi, and Chip Armelin learned on the fly.
The aforementioned trio now provides the experience in the Gophers' backcourt and will be expected to take on bigger roles this season. JUCO transfer Julian Welch along with freshmen Joe Coleman and Andre Hollins, add more depth and a ton of options at shooting guard. However, Ahanmisi is the only true point guard of that bunch, again leaving Minnesota shorthanded at the one. Also, the Gophers need to find a three-point threat who can replace Hoffarber.
Athletic junior Rodney Williams returns to the small forward spot. He has underachieved in his first two years at Minnesota and will need a breakout season for the Gophers to be in the NCAA Tournament picture. With no true backup for Williams, expect Tubby to use a three-guard look for stretches when Williams is on the bench.
Despite Colton Iverson's decision to transfer, Minnesota's strength will still be up front. Trevor Mbakwe was as good as advertised in his first season with the Gophers, leading the team in scoring and rebounding. He made the USA team at this summer's World University Games and is a force down low, due to his strength and athleticism.
After testing the NBA Draft waters, Ralph Sampson III wisely chose to return to school and will start at center. His inside/outside offensive ability and length as a shot-blocker make up for his lack of strength down low.
Like the shooting guard situation, there will be competition to see who earns minutes behind Mbakwe and Sampson off the bench. Mo Walker is a big body down low and the only reserve, post player to see minutes last season, though he only appeared in twelve games. Redshirt-freshmen Elliot Eliason and Oto Osenieks will try to work themselves into the rotation, along with JUCO transfer Andre Ingram.
With no true road game in the non-conference schedule and a weak field at this year's Old Spice Classic, Minnesota should be able to get off to a solid start, just like they did last year. I just do not see this team finishing with a winning conference mark unless the guard play really exceeds expectations. Then we can let the Tubby Smith hot seat really catch fire.
Player to Watch: Rodney Williams, SF
While Williams is explosive at the rim and uses his length to be a solid rebounder and defender, his offensive game has held him back. He has shown zero consistency with his outside shot and does not possess the ball-handling ability to effectively take defenders off the bounce. If Williams cannot show improvements in those areas, it will not only kill his NBA Draft stock, but also hurt the Gophers as a team.
Key Non-Conference Games:
11/17 vs. Fairfield
11/24 vs. DePaul (Old Spice Classic)
11/25 vs. Texas Tech/Indiana State (Old Spice Classic)
11/27 vs. Dayton/Wake Forest/Arizona State/Fairfield (Old Spice Classic)