Gopher Basketball Preview

When national pundits peg the Big Ten as the toughest conference around, most of the credit is given to the motherlodes of talent at Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue and Illinois. And, to be fair, those four teams welcome back a total of 16 starters from last year's squads. But why isn't there much love for Minnesota?

Yes, the Gophers said goodbye to seniors Lawrence Westbrook -- the streak shooter who led the team with 12.8 ppg -- and jack-of-all-trades forward Damian Johnson. Seventh man Paul Carter, a valuable defender and decent scorer, transferred to Illinois-Chicago for his senior year in order to be close to his ailing sister.

So let's be truthful and acknowledge the Gophers lost three of their top eight players from the group that finished with a flurry (8-3 including the run into the Big Ten title game) before falling to Xavier in the NCAA Tournament's opening round.

But it's also important to note how many good players Minnesota has added to that season-ending core. Senior point guard Al Nolen, who was declared academically ineligible 18 games into the season, has returned stronger than ever. He joins senior shooter Blake Hoffarber and junior Devoe Joseph to give the Gophers a strong, experienced backcourt.

Junior power forward Trevor Mbakwe, a Top 100 talent coming out of high school, sat out last year while his felony assault charges were still pending in Florida. Now that Mbakwe settled those issues without a guilty plea, he has been freed to lend a huge hand to Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson in the frontcourt.

"Trevor will give us that inside athleticism and inside presence along with Maurice Walker and Elliot Elliason, both freshmen," Tubby Smith told reporters as the Gophers began official practice.

Lastly, Minnesota fans finally get to see sophomore Rodney Williams on a regular basis. The high-flyer, who some talent scouts regard as a potential lottery pick, will share the small forward spot with freshman Austin Hollins.

Smith, never an effusive sort, didn't hesitate when asked whether he has the deepest squad in his four-year Minnesota tenure.

"I would think so," he said. "The first year we thought we had the depth, but we had a couple guys who left...but this is probably our deepest and most athletic team."


--Junior power forward Trevor Mbakwe has played just 11 Div. I games in his career -- all of them as a lightly used Marquette freshmen. But when Mbakwe received the all-clear to join Minnesota's active roster this summer after having his felony assault charge handled in Florida, the 6-foot-8, 240-pound young man told the Minneapolis Star Tribune he has no small plans.

"I want to lead the Big Ten in rebounding and blocked shots," Mbakwe said.

Mbakwe has the pedigree to excel. He ranked as the nation's No. 91 prospect in the Class of 2007 per the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, which placed him just five spots behind Wisconsin star Jon Leuer. Mbakwe also averaged a double-double at Miami-Dade Junior College in 2008-09.

--Freshman swingman Austin Hollins has a decent basketball pedigree of his own. He's the son of former Portland Trail Blazers guard great Lionel Hollins, who's now the Memphis Grizzlies head coach. Hollins impressed Tubby Smith during early workouts and proved he deserves a spot in the rotation, if not the starting lineup.

"If we had to start today, he'd probably start at the wing spot," Smith said on Oct. 15. "That's the faith, trust and belief I have in him and his ability. That's how much he has improved, too."

--Minnesota led the Big Ten last year in 3-point marksmanship and could do it again this year. The Gophers lost Lawrence Westbrook (.411) and Paul Carter (.406) from the group that shot 39.9 percent on 3s, but senior Blake Hoffarber (.467) and Devoe Joseph (.388) are the Big Ten's best-shooting duo.

LAST YEAR: 21-14 overall, 9-9 in the Big Ten

HEAD COACH: Tubby Smith, fourth year as head coach (63-39 at Minnesota; 450-184 career)

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Hopefully they'll reach their potential and become the best team that we have had here." -- Tubby Smith assessing his fourth Minnesota team.


PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP: PG Al Nolen, SG Blake Hoffarber, SF Rodney Williams, PF Trevor Mbakwe, C Ralph Sampson III.

LINEUP BREAKDOWN: The Gophers have at least seven players who deserve to be starters, so this shouldn't be taken as gospel. Sharp-shooting junior Devoe Joseph adapted well when forced to take over the PG job at midseason last year, so he easily could start at either of the guard spots. Junior big man Colton Iverson could start either in Sampson's spot or alongside him depending on Tubby Smith's matchup needs at the time.


Minnesota welcomes five freshmen this year. While none are Top 100 prospects according to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, they're not long-term projects either. Tubby Smith said at Minnesota's media day that Austin Hollins, the son of Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, could get the starting nod at small forward if sophomore Rodney Williams' concussion effects haven't subsided by the opener. Six-foot-10, 290-pound big man Maurice Walker, who has been a long-time member of the Canadian Junior National Team, will contribute off the bench. Big-scoring guard Chip Armelin could help in the crowded backcourt.


--Junior PF Trevor Mbakwe is eligible after sitting out last year while the legal system sorted out his felony assault charge in Florida. Mbakwe wound up settling the case without admitted guilt, so Minnesota reinstated him to the active roster.

--Senior PG Al Nolen sat out the second semester last season after being declared academically ineligible, but the co-captain is back and ready to go.

--Sophomore SF Rodney Williams suffered a concussion as September turned to October. He didn't begin official practice at 100 percent, but the Gophers expect him to be ready for the season's start.

--Sophomore F Chris Halvorsen must sit out this year after transferring from Valparaiso. The St. Paul, Minn., native scored 9 points in 9 games for the Crusaders.

--Freshman F Oto Osenieks plans to redshirt this year according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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