The Minnesota Gophers started off the season well winning their first two games against two teams, Wofford and Siena—which made the NCAA tournament last spring.
The wins were more impressive to the casual Gopher fan because star player Devoe Joseph is out due to indefinite suspension.
Minnesota begins the Puerto Rico Tip Off just outside the AP Top 25 teams in the country. If the Gophers play well they may get a chance to play No. 8 North Carolina or teams that are on the bubble for breaking into the Top 25, West Virginia and Vanderbilt.
Of course, the Gophers can’t look too far ahead as they first must win their opening round game against Western Kentucky.
Gophers coach Tubby Smith clearly isn’t looking ahead saying that his players needed to drastically improve on and off the court.
After Devoe Joseph was suspended indefinitely for violating unspecified team rules last week, starters Colton Iverson and Rodney Williams faced the wrath of Coach Smith and were disciplined for team violations.
Coach Smith did not elaborate as to what Iverson and Williams specifically did except to say that it was something “we’re just not going to tolerate.”
Coach Smith added that his senior captains Blake Hoffarber and Al Nolen may need to start “taking control” of the team to make sure things like that did not happen again. Iverson and Williams came off the bench against Siena.
Two players that took advantage of Iverson and Williams getting benched were Austin Hollins and Trevor Mbakwe.
Hollins, a freshman, was impressive in the three summer exhibition games he played in Canada. Hollins scored 12 points against Siena including two three point shots during an 11-0 run in which Minnesota took control of the game.
If the Gophers are to have a successful tournament in Puerto Rico, Hollins will likely need to score some scoring to pick up the slack in Joseph’s absence.
Mbakwe tallied his second double-double of the season against Siena scoring 10 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. Trevor, 6’8 and 240 pounds, is built like an oak tree and is the power forward force that was missing from the Gophers last season.
Because Mbakwe is physical and attacks the basket at both ends he presents match-up problems on the offensive end and can be a solid force on the defensive end because of his ability to defend either power or small forwards.
“I’ve been impressed with [Mbakwe] from day one,” Smith said. “He has good stamina, endurance; he’s the strongest guy on the team...he’s intense...he’s got nice touch around the basket and he’s physical...he’s got the total package...that’s what we were missing in the past.”
The opening round game against the Hilltoppers will be an interesting matchup for the Gophers as Western Kentucky has three small forwards who are capable of scoring baskets in bunches.
Sergio Kerusch (6’5, 220) is averaging 20 points, Juan Pattillo (6’6, 220) is averaging 19 points and Steffphon Pettigrew (6’5, 230) is averaging 18 points.
Mbakwe may be the key player in the opening round game as his combination of size and strength will present match-up problems for Western Kentucky.
Minnesota twin towers of Ralph Sampson III and Iverson will also see meaningful minutes in the opening round game as the Hilltoppers don’t have enough size among their front line to match up against Minnesota.
If the Gophers get past Western Kentucky, Minnesota will likely face No. 8 North Carolina.
Minnesota will not enjoy any height advantage over the Tar Heels. An upset over North Carolina will ensure the Gophers will be among the top 25 teams in the country next week.
Even if Minnesota drops its game against North Carolina, the Gophers can enhance their resume among AP voters by winning their final game in the tournament as their likely opponent will be either West Virginia or Vanderbilt.
Of course, the first step that Minnesota needs to address is taking care of Western Kentucky.