PG: Andre Hollins (So)/Julian Welch (Sr)/Maverick Ahanmisi (Jr)
Gone: C-Ralph Sampson III, SG-Chip Armelin (transfer-Southern Mississippi)
With Trevor Mbakwe returning from a torn ACL, Tubby Smith boasts his most talented roster since arriving at Minnesota. Now the question becomes whether or not the Gophers can pull it all together and live up to their preseason Top-25 ranking.
"We got a good chance this year to really make some noise," Gopher senior small forward Rodney Williams told me at the Big Ten Media Day. "We got everybody back, healthy now. Our expectations are really high."
Of course the "back healthy" that Williams is referring to is Trevor Mbakwe. When he went down with a season-ending torn ACL last year, it pretty much destroyed any chance the Golden Gophers had of reaching the NCAA Tournament. Mbakwe is one of the most relentless rebounders in college basketball, so his absence on the floor tremendously impacted Minnesota's toughness inside.
"Last year we lost close games because we didn't get the rebounds," Williams admitted. "So to have him back, that's big." Besides the injury, Mbakwe is also hoping to put his offseason DUI behind him. Tubby Smith praised Mbakwe's character at the Big Ten Media Day and felt assured that the incident was a lapse in judgement and one that won't affect his status with his team. (Same can't be said for Tubby's son, Saul, who is an assistant at Minnesota, and has been put on indefinite leave stemming from his recent DUI arrest.)
The Golden Gophers have plenty of options as to a frontcourt mate for Mbakwe, but nobody who truly stands out among the pack. Elliott Eliason, Oto Osenieks, and Andre Ingram were all role players last season, but don't offer a ton in terms of ability. Maurice Walker is coming off a redshirt year because of a knee injury and brings a ton of size inside though durability will be a concern. Freshman Charles Buggs is long and athletic, but likely not ready to make an immediate impact.
Williams will return to his starting spot at small forward. Always known for his incredible athleticism, he has failed to reach his potential because of his inability to consistenly hit mid-range jump shots or three-pointers. Williams told me that working on his �j' was his biggest focus this summer so we'll see if that hard work pays off. Freshman Wally Ellenson is another freakish jumper but will miss six-eight weeks after breaking his hand in practice last week.
A lot of this season's end result will likely be determined by the young, but steadily maturing, backcourt. There isn't necessarily a true lead guard among the group of Austin Hollins, Julian Welch, Andre Hollins, or Joe Coleman, though all four guards are fairly interchangeable and can play with the ball in their hands or at the two if needed.
I think of the quartet, the Hollinses (they are not brothers by the way) have the most potential, though Welch is a major asset because he's the best three-point shooter on the squad. Maverick Ahanmisi will also factor into the equation, but there just hasn't been a whole lot of promise shown from him to make me believe he can be anything more than a spot reserve.
"There's a lot more expected with our young guards," Williams stated. "We've seen how hard they worked this summer and how much better they've been getting so our expectations are high for those guys."
Only twice during Tubby's five years has Minnesota reached the NCAA Tournament. With lofty expectations heading into the 2012-13 season, you have to figure anything less than a trip to the tourney could end up costing him his job. With an abundance of talented teams in the Big Ten, the road ahead will make it difficult for the Golden Gophers to maximize their potential.
Player to Watch: Rodney Williams, SF
Here's a guy with NBA lottery-level athleticism who has yet to put it all together. I got to spend a few minutes talking one-on-one with him at the Big Ten Media Day, and he's a quiet though well-spoken guy. His game needs to do a lot more talking this year, or his career with the Golden Gophers will be considered a disappointment since he was a top-50 recruit coming out of high school.
Key Non-Conference Games:
11/18 vs. Richmond
11/22 vs. Duke (Battle 4 Atlantis)
11/23 vs. Memphis/VCU (Battle 4 Atlantis)
11/24 vs. Louisville/Northern Iowa/Missouri/Stanford (Battle 4 Atlantis)