Not only does it suck because of Mbakwe's ability, but he was a big reason why this is one of the most likable teams I can remember. When is the last time you saw a player work so hard and improve their biggest weakness? Trevor adding a jump shot and completely revamping his free throw technique and going from a 60% to a 70-75% shooter is one of the more impressive offseason changes I've ever seen from a player who had already established themselves as "good." Voshon Lenard got worse. Sam Jacobson got worse. Michael Bauer got worse. The only thing I've seen even close to it was Eric Harris going from a terrible outside shooter to a dead-eye 3-point specialist. Just an awesome showing of dedication, and coming from a guy who had a difficult past (how much of that you want to blame on him is up to you), combined with his obvious effort and work ethic on the floor made him very easy to root for. This just sucks on every level.
How much is this going to affect the team? I think that's obvious. Kenpom.com doesn't have individual player stats up yet, so I can't tell you Mbakwe's rebounding rates, but I can tell you that with 27 offensive rebounds and 64 total rebounds on the year he's grabbed 28% of the team's O-boards and 25% of their total rebounds - and that's total total, not just when he's on the floor, numbers that would be significantly higher.
Minnesota's team strength this year has been their offensive efficiency, which ranks 32nd in the country. The main reason for that is the team has been extremely strong in 2P Field Goal percentage, offensive rebounding, and getting to and converting free throws. Oy. Defensively, the team's strengths thus far have been blocking shots and getting steals. So I guess that's the good news. Mbakwe out won't affect getting steals all that much - he's only fourth on the team.
It's going to take something major for this team to be able to even compete to be on the NCAA bubble without him, but there are some signs of hope. Maybe it's because I actually like this team that my usual pessimism seems to be lacking this season, but I can see some signs of hope. Starting with:
- Ralph Sampson shifts immediately from #2 guy to #1 in the post, something he needs to get comfortable with. This is the #1 thing that has to happen for the team to have any chance at any success. Ralph's role as second banana in the paint to Trevor, where he could roam the high post/perimeter, feed Mbakwe down low, post up from time to time and grab the leftover rebounds suited him well - both his skills and his demeanor. Now he has to become the #1 low post option, something he can either embrace as his last chance to make a mark in his unremarkable college career, or he can shrink from the responsibility and ensure this season goes nowhere. I fear the latter is more likely, but hold out hope for the former.
- The second biggest key to the year is whether or not Rodney can break out. And I know it seems like a silly question we've been asking for three years now and the answer has always been an emphatic no. His game against DePaul showed flashes of his potential, even if it was mostly just rebounding and putback dunks, but maybe that's what he needs to turn into and this is the biggest chance he's going to get because there are suddenly going to be a lot more rebounds and put back chances available. It's clear that he's not going to develop into a perimeter player without a minor miracle, but maybe this is what he's meant to be - an athletic, undersized four. If he can turn himself into a 10 & 8 guy this year - and I think he can - maybe he puts his offseason efforts into bulking up a bit and becomes a legit college 4. It could happen.
- The development of Andre Ingram. The Gophers really only have three options to play the post, and Elliason isn't nearly skilled enough to grab anything more than spot time, and although Osenieks has shown to be a pretty skilled player he doesn't have to size to bang in the Big 10, leaving Ingram as the guy who needs to step in for Mbakwe - as far as anybody can. I've liked what I've seen from him so far, and although mostly a raw athlete he does have some skill and I think he's going to end up being a quality Big 10 player at some point - whether or not that happens this season is key #3 for the Gophers to have some kind of success this year.
- Finally, and maybe most obviously, the guard play needs to get better, and all these other little flights of fancy might be a bunch of mute points unless this one happens. They all have skills with the ball that I like and little things that can develop further and I think each of Austin Hollins, Andre Hollins, and Julian Welch will end up being quality ball players, but that perimeter defense is just brutal. Their opponents shot 42% from three in the Old Spice Classic (and if you take out the brick factory that is DePaul it was 46%) and it was the same in each game - guard drives, either off a hand off or a pick, Gopher defender can't keep up, help side defense collapse towards the penetrating guard, kick out for the open three. Again and again and again. And if that isn't fixed, nothing else matters.
I hope Trevor can somehow get a sixth year of eligibility due to medical hardship. I hope Ralph Sampson seizes his chance to make his senior year something more memorable than as a side kick. I hope Rodney takes what may be his best and last chance to turn into something more than an athletic freak who never lives up to his potential. I hope the rest of thing shows signs of improvement and of true development and can turn this year into something less than a lost season, and at least compete to be on the bubble. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope I can see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the pacific is as blue as it is in my dreams. I hope.