The Gophers' front court looked promising with the return of Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson as well as the addition of Mo Walker down low. Gopher fans were most excited about the prospects of Minnesota native Trevor Mbakwe able to suit up for the first time since his transfer in 2009. The roster was set and the Gophers looked ready to make a run at the Big Ten title.
The Gophers lived up to the expectations in the early part of the season. In their first regular season game against tourney team Woffard, the Maroon and Gold dominated, winning the game by a score of 69-55. Ralph Sampson scored 20 points while snagging 13 rebounds to go with 14 points and 10 boards from Trevor Mbakwe. Freshman Chip Armelin also flashed his potential—scoring 11 points. The Gophers won their next contest over Sienna, heading into the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament on a high note.
Minnesota was in for a tough tourney with opponents such as North Carolina, Vanderbilt and West Virginia among the field. The Maroon and Gold won their first game against Western Kentucky only to find themselves matched up against a No. 8 ranked North Carolina. The Gophers escaped with a victory over the future ACC champions, clinching a spot in the title game against West Virginia. Minnesota again pulled out a victory in a close game against a future NCAA tournament team. By claiming the title, the Gophers launched themselves into the national rankings.
With a large amount of momentum the Gophers returned home to thrash NDSU in a prelude to the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. On November, 29th, Minnesota took on Virginia at the Barn. This was the first sign of struggle for the surging team. Virginia torched the Gophers from outside, shooting 10-for-13 from behind the arc to deliver Minnesota their first loss of the season.
After the tough loss, the Gophers bounced back, rattling off five straight victories leading into Big Ten play. Then came one of the most daunting tasks of the season, opening the Big Ten with a road game at the Kohl Center against Wisconsin. The game was a back and forth affair until Minnesota native Jordan Taylor had a clutch and-one that gave the Badgers a lead they would never relinquish, giving the Gophers their second loss overall and their first of the Big Ten season.
Minnesota then suffered a tough loss to Michigan State only to find out just days later that combo guard Devoe Joseph would be transferring to Oregon. This was a huge blow for the Gophers who were left with only four guards, two of which were freshmen. Despite the adversity, the Gophers picked up their first conference win against Indiana on January 4th.
Minnesota then dropped their next game to Ohio State, making a huge come back late in the game only to fall short by a score of 67-64. After the loss to the Buckeyes, Minnesota went on a hot streak, beating eighth-ranked Purdue, Iowa, Michigan and Northwestern. Despite the four-game win streak, the Gophers were dealt another blow, losing Al Nolen to a foot injury that would eventually cost him the rest of the year. The Gophers were now down to just three guards, and almost no experience at the point guard position.
With Nolen out, Blake Hoffarber had to take control of most of the point guard duties. While Hoffarber played well at the point, it was a strain on the team to not have their best shooter play off the ball. This showed in Minnesota's next four conference losses where the Maroon and Gold lost by an average of over eight points per contest.
The Gophers picked up a much needed win against Iowa in mid-February to keep their tournament hopes alive. With 17 wins and five games remaining on the schedule, it looked like Minnesota could turn it around and find themselves in the postseason. Unfortunately, the Gophers struggled down the stretch to close out games, leading to their five straight regular season losses. Their only hope was to make another magical run in the Big Ten tournament if they wanted their season to continue.
The Gophers drew Northwestern in the first round of the tournament but lost by a score of 75-65, ending Minnesota's season. Minnesota ended the season with a 17-14 record overall and 6-12 in conference play. It wasn't the poor play of the Gophers or bad coaching by Tubby Smith but rather the combination of transfers and injuries that handcuffed Minnesota late in the season.
To add to the late woes of the year, it was reported that Colton Iverson would be transferring prior to his senior season with Minnesota. Iverson confirmed this and was released from his scholarship, putting the Gophers in another bind in trying to filling up their roster.
Despite the tough end to the year there were still plenty of bright spots that the Gophers can be proud of. Firstly, Trevor Mbakwe established himself as one of the most dominant big men in the conference, leading the Big Ten in rebounding with 10.3 per contest while also averaging 13.9 points. The St. Paul native also had the second highest field percentage in the conference, making 58.2% of his field goal attempts. Mbakwe's dominance earned him All Big Ten Second Team honors.
This commitment to rebounding by Mbakwe was echoed by the rest of the team who led the Big Ten in rebounds per game. The Gophers averaged 38.1 boards per game while also outrebounding their opponents by over five per contest.
Although the loss of Joseph and Nolen hurt the team's record, it did give freshmen Maverick Ahanmisi, Chip Armelin, and Austin Hollins valuable playing time. Coach Smith was extremely impressed with these youngsters for their effort throughout the year.
Although the Gophers' seasoned ended on a low note, with a strong cast of players coming back, there is still hope for optimism for Minnesota fans.