Who would of thought that the Gophers would be 9-1 with a starting lineup that has only one of the five starters from a year earlier? Not to mention that the starter is the fifth of five in terms of importance to the Gophers success from last season. Rodney Williams, former high four-star recruit and albatross for the Gophers during his first two seasons, has suddenly become a viable scoring option for Minnesota.
It has been only 10 days since senior leader Trevor Mbakwe tore his ACL and fans from the Twin Cities guaranteed a mulligan of a season. It was an injury that crippled the Golden Gophers especially in the front court. Minnesota is also without Maurice Walker, who is recovering from a torn ACL from last December and is unlikely to play all season. The current frontcourt for Minnesota is Williams and redshirt freshman Elliot Eliason, with Ralph Sampson III currently coming off the bench as he comes back from a hurt ankle.
During the three game stretch since Mbakwe’s injury, Williams has put the team on his back for the most part. He has made 19 of 24 shots, tallied 23 rebounds, 10 blocks, and seven steals. He is all over the stat board. On the season, Williams is shooting over 63 percent from the field while averaging almost 2 blocks and 2 steals on the defensive end.
Williams isn’t the only Gopher that has stepped up in Mbakwe’s absence. Junior college transfer, Julian Welch, has been consistent as the starting point guard after Minnesota shuffled up their lineup. He has scored in double digits in six straight games along with being perfect from the free throw line in the past five. The Golden Gophers are surprising guard heavy suddenly after having 7 players taller than 6’7" on the roster.
It’s been a total team effort for the Gophers so far this season with their only loss coming from Dayton, who recently beat ranked Alabama. Minnesota is shooting almost 50 percent from the field this season while excelling greatly on the defensive end of the court. Coach Tubby Smith has complained about the turnovers that the Gophers are prone to cough up, but that has been it thus far.
Williams has struggled throughout in his first two seasons for the Golden Gophers. He always seemed nervous to shoot the ball with confidence and was constantly getting subbed in after making a mistake. The short leash is no more as Williams has had a career high in points twice already this season. He is already two steals and three blocks away from matching his sophomore marks. The junior looks more comfortable at power forward than he has ever looked at small forward.
Last week, athletic director Joel Maturi said in an exclusive interview that he didn’t feel that Minnesota had enough talent to contend without Mbakwe. So far, the Golden Gophers are proving the AD wrong. The next three games for Minnesota are ‘should-be’ wins before Big Ten play begins.
The loss of Mbakwe will surely hurt Minnesota in the long run, especially during the brutal conference schedule, but with the spirits still high and Sampson inching back from injury, the scrappy bunch in the City of Lakes have something to be excited about.
It should also be noted the Minnesota currently is in the top 20 in RPI. A strong RPI has been something Minnesota has lacked since Tubby Smith has arrived in the Twin Cities.