The 2010 Minnesota Gophers could be the best team under coach Tubby Smith’s tenure at the university. “I think it’s the most athletic team. You still have to wait and see,” Coach Smith said. “Hopefully, they’ll reach their potential and become the best team that we’ve had here.”
Should Gopher fans share in Smith’s optimism about their squad? There are several reasons for optimism this year, below are 10 reasons why Gopher fans should be looking forward to the upcoming season:
10. Minnesota Returns Experienced Nucleus of Players
Blake Hoffarber, Colton Iverson, Devoe Joseph, Al Nolen, Ralph Sampson III and Rodney Williams all saw significant time last year; all of the above players with the exception of Williams averaged more than 15 minutes of playing time.
9. Al Nolen Is Back and Ready to Play
Nolen was suspended last year in December for not making adequate academic progress. Nolan’s presence was felt last year as the Gophers struggled to find someone to put pressure on the opposition’s point guard.
Coach Smith in recent comments to the media noted the positive change in Nolen. Nolen also appears to understand that sitting out last year might have helped him in the long run. "Going through what I did last year definitely helped me out in life," Nolen said. "I definitely needed some maturing to do. And I think that helped me. Everything happened for a reason."
8. Minnesota Had a Good Summer
During the past summer, the incoming freshmen and new players had an opportunity to get in extra practice time and play three exhibition games in Canada with the veteran players. According to Coach Smith, “I can tell we’re ahead in some areas [as a result of our work over the summer]. Things are going well.”
7. Coach Smith Is Rejuvenated after Spending Summer in Africa
This offseason could have been very trying for Coach Smith with the adverse verdict against him in the Jimmy Williams lawsuit and the ambiguity surrounding whether Trevor Mbwake would be on the team. Coach Smith, however, has a spring in his step as he told reporters on media day that “[t]his is the start of my 37th year in coaching, but it seems like I could go for another 37 years. That's the kind of energy I feel and also what I feel about this team.”
6. Austin Hollins Appears Ready to Contribute as a Freshman
Hollins is the son of Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins. Austin is a solid 6’4" with excellent shooting range who can put the ball on the floor and rebound. Hollins hit the weight room hard this summer and believes he put on 10 pounds of muscle since coming to Minnesota.
Coach Smith is very high on Hollins and has suggested that he could potentially see meaningful minutes. Coach Smith on the freshman phenom: “I don't think we've had a more consistent, as far as effort is concerned, player since I've been here. That's how hard he's worked, how focused he is and how mature he is...That's what you're supposed to do. Do the things right on the court and off the court, and you'll get your opportunity.”
5. Maurice Walker Could Be Pleasant Surprise Off the Bench
As a big man Walker gives the Gophers needed depth if Sampson or Iverson get into early foul trouble. Walker is likely the largest freshman in the Big Ten as he came to campus somewhere in the neighborhood of 6’10" and 320 pounds; when Big Ten play begins he will likely be done around 285. In comparison, Walker has more bulk than either Iverson or Sampson. Some scouting services ranked Walker among the top 10 centers in the incoming freshman class.
4. The Return of the Twin Towers
Iverson (6’10" and 260) and Sampson (6’10" and 240) will pose several matchup problems for most Big Ten teams as they did against Purdue last year in the Big Ten Tournament.
Iverson is a rugged banger who is as tough as they come in the post in the Big Ten. Sampson may have the softest touch from beyond 15 feet for a big man in the Big Ten. During midnight madness, Sampson put up a serious challenge to Hoffarber in the three-point shooting contest.
If the Gophers can find a way to keep both players on the court for meaningful minutes, Minnesota may find a way to hang up a Big Ten championship banner at the end of the year.
3. Blake Hoffarber Is Best Returning Three-Point Specialist in Big Ten
Hoffarber shot an eye-popping 47 percent from three-point land last year. Hoffarber is arguably the best pure three-point shooter in the conference.
While Hoffarber still has difficulty creating his own shot off of the dribble, Blake almost never misses an open-look three-point shot off of a kick-out pass. Hoffarber has also enhanced his value at the end of the game with his ability to ice games with his 85-percent field-goal shooting.
2. Devoe Joseph Is Developing into a Consistent Scorer
A quick look at Joseph’s stat line at the end of the year is likely not going to cause too many Big Ten fans to shake and quiver. However, Joseph began to emerge as a scorer to be recognized during crunch time in the second half of the season.
Last year, Lawrence Westbrook was way too inconsistent in the role and took too many ill-advised shots. Coach Smith will be happier with the decisions that Joseph makes this year over the choices made by Westbrook last year.
1. The Emergence of Trevor Mbwake
The principal problem for Minnesota last year is that they did not have a player to play the traditional power forward position. Trevor Mbwake fills Minnesota’s need at the power forward position, as he is a very solid 6’8", 240 pounds.
Mbwake is a solid interior presence who can’t be moved from the block, yet he has mad hops. Mbwake’s vertical is better than Williams' by two inches yet he outweighs Williams by 40 pounds; Mbwake won the dunk contest during midnight madness with some monstrous dunks.
Minnesota could be the surprise team in the Big Ten this year as they have size, a strong interior presence, a great three-point shooter, a classic tough-minded defensive point guard, a couple of freshmen that will contribute and several returning players who had quality experience from last year.
Yes, coach Tubby Smith and Minnesota fans have very good reasons to be optimistic.