It was ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ in the Twin Cities this past season. Charles Dickens couldn’t have said it any better.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…"
The Minnesota Golden Gophers were able to start the season on a huge high. They came and conquered in the Puerto Rico tip-off against Western Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia.
They were still 16-4 after beating Northwestern in their second-to-last game in January. They were comfortably in the Top 25 in the nation. They had the three toughest games of the season out of the way and lost all three of them on the road. But, the Gophers were fine. That Northwestern game was the first game Minnesota was playing without starting point guard, Al Nolen (they later found out he would not return to finish the season). The Golden Gophers were able to fend off defeat thanks to 31 fouls by Northwestern. All would change that weekend.
Minnesota went to West Lafayette to play Purdue and was defeated. And defeated was what Minnesota stayed. They only won one more game the rest of the season while losing the other nine. The nightmare without a good point guard on the roster haunted Minnesota each and every game.
They went from a possible four-seed in the NCAA tournament to a borderline tournament team to a NIT squad to not making any tournament. Minnesota finished 17-14 on the season; the worst season for Tubby Smith in 20 seasons.
The chants of "Tubby" might be in question this season. The Barnyard normally bows down to coach Smith before each game at William’s Arena. The respect will have to be earned this season. Luckily, Smith has a senior in his arsenal that might be the best rebounder in all of college basketball, and he only got better this past summer thanks to Team USA.
Trevor Mbakwe. He has moved around from Marquette to community college to back home to Minnesota. Along the way, he has had his share of drama with the legal system. Yet, he is a beast among boys. He averaged a double-double last season.
This Gophers squad is different than the ones of the past. This one is full of athleticism but lacks true scoring threats. The 2011-2012 season will be the first team that Tubby Smith has recruited each and every player on his roster. Smith has had success recruiting at Minnesota by the numbers, but the results haven’t been seen.
Colton Iverson just transferred to Colorado State. Devoe Joseph left last season to Oregon because he wasn’t happy with the program. Royce White, a five-star recruit from Hopkins, Minnesota, never saw the court for Minnesota because of legal drama. Bryant Allen and Justin Cobb have also transferred away from Tubby Smith and the Golden Gophers.
Yet, they have a solid nucleus of players especially in the frontcourt of Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III. The duo is one of (if not thee) the best frontcourts in the Big Ten. They also have big Mo Walker to help them out. Walker is now a redshirt freshman after being injured most of last season. Another redshirt, Elliot Eliason, has high upside according to the Gopher coaching staff.
Minnesota has 13 players that could all see good playing time this season. Along with the nine returning players, the Golden Gophers add two junior college players and two freshman guards.
The x-factor for Minnesota this season is Ralph Sampson III. The question is always if Sampson is mentally prepared. He is rather quiet in his demeanor on the court, but has the prospects to play in the NBA because of his pedigree. His father, Ralph Sampson, was the first overall pick in the 1983 NBA draft after playing for the University of Virginia. Sampson III has good range but lacks the motor that Mbakwe keenly has. If you could combine the two players, it would be a stud of a player.
Three huge storylines
1. Who will be the point guard for the Golden Gophers?
2. Will the real Rodney Williams please stand up?
3. Could Tubby Smith actually be fired if Minnesota struggles?
Answers according to this blogger…
1. The point guard position is up to three, maybe four, players on the Minnesota squad. Julian Welch, a junior-college transfer and former UC-Davis guard, was the freshman player of the year in the Big West two years ago. He won’t be the only PG that Tubby will have. He also has Maverick Ahanmisi to take some minutes at point guard. Ahanmisi, who was not highly touted out of high school, was thrusted into the starting point guard role after Nolen was injured. Lastly, true freshman Andre Hollins should see time at point guard. Hollins beat out top prospect Adonis Thomas for Mr. Basketball in the state of Tennessee.
2. Rodney Williams was a projected lottery pick in each of the past two seasons before the season began. But…he can’t shoot. After two seasons at Minnesota, he hasn’t been able to conjure up a consistent shot. Williams can dunk, block, and play defense. But, until he can be consistent on offense, Williams will only be a starter whose key asset is defense.
3. A source close to the program tweeted that more major drama is likely to unfold for the Gophers. There has been a line of drama in Smith’s tenure with the Minnesota program. It still seems to be under disarray even now in Tubby’s fifth season as head coach. Tubby has announced that he had cancer during the offseason and that he is now cancer free. Tubby has three seasons left in his deal at Minnesota and wants an extension along with a practice facility for his players. Coach Smith is still likely to stay at Minnesota, but he isn’t on as big of leash as he once was.
If Minnesota can be semi-close to the first half Golden Gophers team and less-close to the second half squad, Tubby Smith and crew can be hopeful for a NCAA bid. They have a true beast in the interior along with a few essential secondary players. They are one key player away from truly contending in the Big Ten. Minnesota is very young and have a deep rotation. In reality, the Gophers just want to be in top half in the B1G.