Because above all else - including the Twins, gambling, shitty predictions, and shark movies - this is a Gopher basketball blog I'm giving them their own post rather than just lumping them in with a bunch of other teams like I've been doing. And since I know things will go better this way, I'm going to do this in random points style.
- Is #19 a little bit too high? Yeah, maybe. Based on votes the Coaches poll has them 34th, while the AP poll puts them at #30. CBS Sports has them at #22 and most of the other polls/previews I've found put them anywhere between twenty and fifty, so yes, nineteenth is a bit optimistic, but only a bit. I'm also making some assumptions about the Gophers this year, which brings me to a few more points.
- I'm assuming Trevor Mbakwe is healthy. Let's put aside any legal questions regarding Mbakwe because it's reportedly all behind both him and the team at this point and also who really gives a crap? I don't care what the players do off the court (as long as they stay eligible) and couldn't care less if they graduate (as long as the program doesn't get hit like UCONN and others just did) I just want my teams to win. Given that as my starting point, I only care about if Mbakwe can play the way he could when healthy, and I'm thinking it's a yes.
See, because this isn't the dark ages of medicine anywhere. When my dad blew out his knee when he was playing minor league baseball ages ago they practically had to slice the knee off to work on it. In more recent times, it was said you needed anywhere from a year and a half to two years to fully recover, but luckily modern medicine continues to get better and that's not necessarily the case anymore. Adrian Peterson blew out his knee Christmas Eve of 2011 and is now one of the leading rushers in the NFL in a season that started just 9 months later. A more relevant example is Michigan State's forward Branden Dawson, who blew out his knee in early March of 2012 and has already resumed full basketball activities just 7 months later. Mbakwe has a full 3 months on that dude recovery wise, so I expect him to be the same guy who was attacking the glass and practically winning games for the Gophers single handedly early last season.
- I'm assuming Rodney Williams has learned how to play and won't shrink back into Mbakwe's shadow. Probably the biggest key to last year's little bit of success was Williams blossoming after Mbakwe's injury into a legitimate forward. He learned to play a little bit of PF, taking smaller defenders down into the paint even if Tubby called an agonizing small amount of plays that called for this, and he learned how to play SF, figuring out that a mid-range jumper wasn't his game and that when he had slower defenders on him to take that shit to the rack. He was a smashing success, nearly doubling his scoring and increasing basically all stats across the board. My hope is that he can continue to play this way, and maybe work in an little high post/low post (come on, you know Tubby loves it) with Mbakwe depending on match-ups and see what happens.
The fear, of course, is that with Mbakwe back as the main big man - and make no mistake that's his paint - Rodney will decide he's a perimeter-oriented small forward once again. He'll start the year settling for threes and taking long-range 2s rather than posting up or getting to the rim, and when he starts missing (and unless something has drastically changed he will be missing) he will lose confidence, get pulled from games, and revert back to his sophomore year level of play. I am choosing to believe that this will not happen. Williams looked happy last season for once of the first times I can recall, and I think he really enjoyed being "the guy in the paint", the guy who exploited mis-matches, and the guy who could crash the boards. He can still be all this, and if he does, he's going to be one of the best small forwards in the conference. It is on Tubby to make sure he finds a way to make Mbakwe and Williams' co-exist. Their skill sets do overlap in some ways, but they complement each other in may ways as well. Make it happen, Tubby. This is easily the most important piece to this year's puzzle.
- I'm assuming Andre Hollins is as good as he was at the end of last season. If you're a Gopher fan you know how Hollins closed out the season (at least until the Stanford game): 8 straight games scoring double figures with half of those over 20, incredible free throw shooting (40-42 in those 8 games; 90% for the year), 16-40 from 3, and 26 assists - incredible numbers if he could keep it up for the season. He showed flashes of that kind of scoring ability earlier in the year, and an 8-game stretch is too long to be a total fluke. He brings an incredible ability to get into the paint to the table (shades of Russell Westbrook) and obviously can finish at the line. He may not be the best pure distributor a point guard could be, but he got better as the year went on and finished out looking awfully good for a freshman. His shooting is only so-so from the outside, but a 38% 3-point percentage in his first year is a good indicator of success. All signs point to an absolute breakout year.
My one fear is that Tubby may end up neutering him. Yeah he's a little reckless at times and can be out of control, but that's what I want in my point guard. I want a point guard who, every single time he gets an outlet pass, streaks up the floor immediately to see if anything looks good, and then pulls it back. I don't mind forcing the ball where it maybe shouldn't go sometimes because if the point guard is good enough (and I think he is) that's going to work as often as it doesn't. You show me a point guard at this level and at that age who is always under control and I'll show you a point guard who can't make anything happen. With Mbakwe and Williams already there to take care of the paint someone has to be the guy on the perimeter, and there is no reason for it not to be Dre Hollins.
- Put those three assumptions together, and you can see why I'm so optimistic this season. Think about it. If all those assumptions break correctly, how many better big men are there in the league than Mbakwe? I'll tell you: 1 - Tyler Zeller. Whichever you prefer, those two are clearly #1A and #1B in the Big 10. Then, what is a better combo of forwards than Mbakwe and Williams? Again, Indiana with Zeller and Watford. Unless the two freshmen at Michigan (McGary and Robinson) are through the roof (very possible), Basabe stops sucking and Aaron White improves immensely at Iowa and/or Adam Woodbury is ready to be a stud now (unlikely), or some combination of the Spartan freshmen and Branden Dawson's knee are studs (possible), the Gophers will have a top-2 forward combo, and at worst will be top-5 if all those things I just wrote happen. Then, how many PGs are going to be better than Andre Hollins? Trey Burke, obviously. Tim Frazier, probably but kind of irrelevant. Aaron Craft? Maybe, but what about on offense? Keith Appling? No. Jordan Hulls? No. There are two freshmen who could be huge in Yogi Ferrell (Indiana) and Gary Harris (Michigan State), but in any case you're looking at one of the top players at three different positions for the Gophers this year. Fill in the rest with capable role players (and I'm not quite ready to relegate Austin Hollins or Joe Coleman to "role player" being their upside this year) and you're looking at a very, very good team.
I can absolutely see this going to shit as well, even if Mbakwe is 100%, and that's due to Mr. Tubby Smith. The way this team is built, with Mbakwe and Williams, they should be grabbing damn near every defensive rebound and then they should be outletting to Hollins and go. This team should be fast enough and athletic enough to have an excellent transition game. Unfortunately the Gophers have never ranked higher than #192 in tempo under Tubby. The highest Kentucky ever ranked under Tubby was #147, so I'm guessing we aren't going to see a more uptempo squad. This worries me that he's going to beat on Hollins' that he needs to slow it down, walk it up, make 3-passes before a shot and all that other Norman Dale bullshit. I also worry about the Mbakwe/Williams dynamic, because Tubby has never gotten a 2-big man system to really work. Now, Williams isn't a true big man but he also doesn't shoot well, so that's going to be on Tubby to figure that out, but if he can make it work Austin Hollins and Julian Welch (and Oto Osenieks) should have many, many chances to knock down open jumpers.
I've never been one to irrationally call for Tubby's head, and I'm not doing it now, but this is absolutely a make-or-break year for him. For one, as outlined above, he has the most talented team he's had here yet and has a chance to develop into something special. Perhaps even more important is the wealth of basketball talent in Minnesota in 2014, and while a successful year might convince some of that talent to stay home, another missed NCAA Tournament will almost certainly drive them away.
ESPN ranks Tyus Jones (Apple Valley) #1 for the class, Rashad Vaughn (Cooper) #10, and Reid Travis (De La Salle) #29. Jones is almost certainly not going to stay home, but Vaughn and Travis are the kind of kids who can make a school like Minnesota. Tubby's overall record with highly ranked Minnesota kids is very good, but these guys are ranked way ahead of where Royce White, Rodney Williams, and Joe Coleman were. This season needs to go well to have a chance to get these guys. I don't know if Tubby's job depends on it, but it should.
Oh, right. Picture: