After the positivity of their frantic run to the NCAA tournament was neutralized by a pair of humbling losses to Ohio State (Big Ten Championship) and Xavier (NCAA's first round), the Minnesota Golden Gophers can put a year of unprecedented befuddlement behind them, and focus on the 2010-11 campaign.
The Gophers entered the 2009-10 season with high expectations.
They returned in virtual entirety their core from 2008-09, and augmented it further with one of the nation's most impressive recruiting hauls. Couple this influx of talent with the continuity of Gopher hoops patriarch Tubby Smith's imprint on the program, and it is easy to interpret the reasoning behind the hype for 2009-10.
Late surge notwithstanding, the Gophers succumbed to an assortment of ailments and failed to deliver the top 25 product most Minnesota fans expected.
Main catalysts for this failure of delivery are best characterized within the framework of "off-the-court" issues. Moreover, the Gophers were without heralded recruit Royce White, and highly anticipated transfer Trevor Mbakwe for the entire season, leaving a dearth of frontcourt toughness and scoring.
White, a combo forward and Minnesota native whose effortless offensive game was expected to elevate Minnesota's chances for a Big Ten title, never saw the floor and his legal issues continue even today.
Mbakwe was also inactive due to legal issues, though recent developments have hinted at his innocence and even suggested he should have been able to play at least by December.
Similarly, junior point man Al Nolan, a controversial talent who seems to be either loathed or loved by Gopher purists, was ruled academically ineligible for the second half of the season. Nolan’s absence ultimately disrupted Minnesota’s depth and pecking order, though it did help Devoe Joseph emerge as a viable threat.
Nonetheless, the Gophers will enter the 2010-11 season with a chance at redemption as they return a handful of important contributors. To best analyze the Gopher's prospects for next season, I have decided to do a position-by-position analysis of what to expect in 2010-11.
Please remember this is a very early assessment. I am not an expert, but merely an attentive fan who hopes to bring to light the Gophers’ chances for 2010-11.
Nonetheless, it is a fun endeavor and as a life-long Gopher fan, it is hard to recall a time in the program’s history with an immediate future so rich with potential.
Headlining the crop is Devoe Joseph, the unpolished and fearless sophomore whose outside shooting and scoring improved greatly down the stretch of this season. Nolan also returns, but his role is very difficult to predict considering Joseph's emergence and his absence during the second half of the season.
Adding greater intrigue is the lingering decision of Devoe's younger brother Cory. Cory Joseph, a consensus five star recruit, has Minnesota on his short-list of schools and would immediately become Tubby’s best player. Joseph also is considering juggernauts such as Connecticut, Villanova and Texas.
I would not be surprised if he chooses to team up with his brother Devoe to form on the Big Ten’s best, and most enjoyable backcourts. Justin Cobbs, a freshman in 2009-10, showed decent potential and may see time though most Gopher fans hope it does not get to that point.
The nation's best 3P shooter (by percentage), Blake Hoffarber, returns in 2010-11 for his senior year to add experience on the wing.
Adding depth and future potential is recruit Austin Hollins (6’6”) who offers similar long-range ability to Hoffarber, with a good frame to boot. Devoe Joseph could also see significant time off the ball next season, especially if his brother Cory decides to don the maroon and gold.
Minnesota often employs a three-guard system, so depending on the decision of Cory Joseph, any number of the Gophers’ guards could play on the wing. Look for Hoffarber, however, to be a mainstay in the starting lineup, as his deadly outside shot often overshadows his sound, consistent game.
The departure of Damian Johnson will likely prove the biggest struggle for the Gophers next season. His likely replacement, sophomore Rodney Williams (6'7"), was listed as a possible future NBA lottery pick for a few weeks in the beginning of the season. Williams is an incredible dunker who has shown glimpses of all-world athleticism.
With that said, Williams is quite raw and far too unassertive on the court.
If Tubby can nurture Williams' natural ability, he could emerge as an elite talent, especially defensively. Paul Carter (6’8”), a versatile player who has brief spurts of offensive productivity, could also see time at small forward, as could Hollins.
Carter can do a little bit of everything, and is in nature more of a post-player, but if his outside shot and ball-handling improve over the summer he could see more time on the perimeter.
Mbakwe (6'8") should fill in nicely for the Gophers next year. Considered an adequate offensive threat, the former Marquette Golden Eagle's toughness and rebounding prowess will immediately improve Minnesota's interior credibility.
White (6’8”), who is still somewhat of a long shot to ever play for Minnesota, could add so much to this team if he can get his personal life in order.
White's skill-set is that of the quintessential combo-forward of today's Big Ten; meaning he is skilled, nasty and versatile. He has such a smooth offensive game, and has the reputation of being a defensive bull when he applies himself. If these two can get past their legal issues, power forward could really be an area of strength.
Colton Iverson (6'10") really emerged as a threat at the end of the 2009-10 season.
Iverson, a South Dakota native who is just now starting to adapt to the pace of elite basketball competition, should be a verifiable force next season. He showed uncanny ability to get position on the block, and has a nice arsenal of post-moves including a reliable drop-stop and a consistent hook shot.
He has decent NBA potential if he continues to develop.
Ralph Sampson (6' 11"), a tantalizing talent with a rich hoops pedigree, suffers from a lack of aggressiveness and often appears overwhelmed by the physicality of Big Ten basketball. Softness aside, Sampson does possess commendable touch for a (near) seven-footer and could still develop into a more productive player.
In moments of brief illumination, Sampson has asserted himself to the point of becoming a defensive specialist with shot-blocking ability.
If he can improve his toughness, his underrated shooting and passing ability could be of greater service to Tubby. Recruit Elliot Eliason is a nice piece but with Sampson and Iverson's continued growth Eliason will struggle to find time in 2010-11.
Think of their roster as a grouping of two types of players:
A. The guys who have proven they can play but lack top end talent. (Cobbs, Joseph D, Hoffarber, Carter, Iverson)
B. The guys with natural ability and significant question marks. (Nolan, Williams, White, Mbakwe, Sampson)
In essence, those two groups make up two different starting lineups. This leaves lots of room for liberty when Tubby is allotting time and roles, so it will be interesting to watch this as the offseason progress.
Below, I gave my starting lineup for 2010-11 (with projected stats)—keep in mind this is a highly pre-mature assessment and as such, many of these predictions are based on little more than instinct and optimism. Sadly, this lineup does not assume Cory Joseph’s commitment.
PG: Joseph, D (14 pts, 37 percent 3P) / Nolan (4 pts, 4 ast, 1 stl)
SG: Hoffarber (12 pts, 48 percent 3P) / Elliason (3 pts, 35 percent 3P)
SF: Williams (8 pts, 30 percent 3P) / Carter (6 pts, 4 reb)
PF: Mbakwe (10 pts, 7 reb) / White (7 pts, 4 reb)
C: Iverson (12 pts, 6 reb) / Sampson (8 pts, 1 blk)
If Tubby and Co. can curb their legal and academic issues, while also developing young talent, the Gophers can be as good as anyone in the Big Ten next year.
Cory Joseph's decision will be a big factor as well, as he could prove to be the missing piece, though should he decide to attend college elsewhere, Tubby has ample assets to still produce a top 20 team. Royce White and his legal standing bring more risk-reward factors to play as well.
In closing, the Gophers possess a group of players that on potential alone could challenge for a Big Ten Title or more. I think they will finish around the top four in the Big Ten and fight for a top five seed in the NCAA's.