2009-2010 Minnesota Golden Gophers
2008-2009 Record: 22-11, 9-9 Big Ten (T-Seventh)
Key Losses: Jamal Abu-Shamala (3.8 ppg, 1.7 rpg), Travis Busch (3.7 ppg, 1.6 rpg).
Key Returners: Lawrence Westbrook (12.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg), Damian Johnson (9.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.9 spg, 2.0 bpg), Al Nolen (6.5 ppg, 4.3 apg, 1.9 spg).
Newcomers: Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams, Royce White, Justin Cobbs.
There really is only one way to describe the 2009-2010 version of the Golden Gophers—balanced.
Last season, there were 11 guys that averaged double figures in minutes played (with no one playing more than 27 per) and nine guys that averaged 5.0 ppg or more on a team that ranked 214th in terms of adjusted tempo last season.
Put a different way, they got a lot of scoring from a lot of guys for a team that didn't score a lot of points.
The depth of Minnesota's roster this year is impressive, but the most important player on the court is going to be senior Lawrence Westbrook. Westbrook's game changed a bit last year as he developed into more of a scorer (he shot more, looked to pass less), and it seemed to pay off as Minnesota went 15-3 in games Westbrook bested his season average of 12.6 ppg.
Westbrook, who was able to average 12.6 ppg in just over 24 mpg, is at his best when he is attacking. He is built like a running back (6'0", 195 lb of muscle) and is quick, which means that once he gets his shoulders by a defender, he is getting to the rim.
But Westbrook also has three point range and made some strides in his mid range game as last season progressed.
Joining Westbrook in the backcourt is junior Al Nolen. Nolen is a quick little point guard capable of scoring when he needs to, but he is at his best when he is creating and running Tubby Smith's offense.
Perhaps Nolen's most valuable attribute is his ability to harass the opposing point guard defensively (case in point: Kalin Lucas shot 7-for-24 and averaged just 11 ppg in two games against Minnesota).
Ideally, Nolen will be a guy that averages 7.5 ppg, 5.5 apg, turns it over less than twice per contest, and knocks down free throws down the stretch.
Perhaps Minnesota's most important player is going to be Damian Johnson. A 6'7", athletic wing, Johnson has arms that extend for days, which allows him to be one of the best all around defenders in the Big Ten.
Johnson is also a threat on the offensive end, as he was the second leading scorer for the Gophers last season.
Not a great shooter, Johnson is excellent around the rim, whether he gets there via a post-up, penetration, or an offensive rebound.
Starting inside for the Gophers will probably be a pair of 6'11" sophomores, Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III.
Iverson is a bit more polished offensively than Sampson is, but Sampson is more of a threat defensively as he is a bit longer and more athletic.
The two complement each other really well when they played together last year. It wasn't uncommon to see Tubby allowing Sampson to step out to the perimeter while Iverson worked down low, as Sampson has pretty consistent range out to about 17 feet.
It may be a moot point for one of those two, however, as Tubby landed arguably his best recruit at Minnesota.
Royce White is a 6'8", 240 lb forward out of Minnesota. White may very well take over a starting spot by the end of the season.
He is a bruiser down low with a decent array of moves, but also has a fairly well-defined perimeter game for a kid his age. He can knock down a college three with time, and has shown the ability to get out and run the floor as well.
The place where Tubby is going to gain his biggest advantage is his depth, as the Gophers will likely have 12-13 guys that will be good enough to see minutes (although it is highly unlikely that will happen).
Up front, 6'8" JuCo transfer Trevor Mbakwe (if he gets cleared to play) will provide some added muscle for the Gophers.
Junior Paul Carter and freshman Rodney Williams, both long, 6'8" wings, will provide Tubby with plenty of athleticism (and highlights).
Sophomore Devoe Joseph and senior Blake Hoffarber are the shooters.
Senior Devron Bostick is the defensive stopper on the perimeter, and freshman Justin Cobbs may even see some minutes backing up the point.
When you talk about this Minnesota team, what you have to mention is team play. They are patient offensively, working the ball around to find a good shot. They don't turn the ball over (Westbrook, who averaged just 2.1 turnovers, was the only player with more than two per game).
They can play man just as well as a zone in the full court just as well as in the half court and they seamlessly shuffle through defenses from possession to possession.
They are as well coached and as smart as any team in the country.
There are two problems, however.
First of all, I don't know if the Gophers really have a go-to scorer. Is Westbrook ready (and capable) of taking that role? Will he be able to break his man down and get the Gophers a bucket when they really need one? That is going to be important in a Big Ten conference with a lot of good defenses.
The other problem is the fact that Minnesota plays in the very good and very balanced Big Ten. I could legitimately see the Gophers finishing anywhere from third to ninth.
Most likely, they are going to finish in the pack of three or four teams that will inevitably form two or three games behind Purdue and Michigan State.
I'd expect in the neighborhood of 22-25 wins and another NCAA tournament trip.