LAST YEAR: 9-22 overall, 3-13 in conference.
HEAD COACH: Tubby Smith (career 387-145); First year at Minnesota.
STRENGTHS: Despite their overall defensive problems, the Gophers defended well against the three (fifth in the Big Ten with 33.5 percent allowed) and were third in the conference with 4.9 blocked shots per game. Dan Coleman said he's been working on shot-blocking in the offseason, a skill that can only help the team overall. But Lawrence McKenzie is definitely the go-to guy in crunch time. He has a quick, strong first step, and he's not afraid to drive and draw the hard foul. He's the guy who has to be comfortable with the ball in his hands at all times. But Coleman has to be ready, too.
WEAKNESSES: The team will struggle in a lot of areas. The Gophers don't have a lot of quickness, which will cost them against speedy, up-and-down offenses like Michigan State's. But they could also have trouble against teams with frontcourt depth. The Gophers didn't score a lot (60.6 ppg) and they rarely stopped their opponents either (66.2 ppg allowed) last season. But their biggest issue will be a lack of depth. What happens if McKenzie, Coleman or Spencer Tollackson gets injured? If health becomes a problem, the Gophers will be forced to give their young players more playing time in a tough league.
SCOUTING THE NEWCOMERS: With Minnesota's lack of depth, true freshmen Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber will likely get some minutes this season. Hoffarber, known for an ESPY-winning shot in high school, is already one of the team's purest shooters. And Nolen played tough when he was matched up against Lawrence McKenzie during Minnesota's version of Midnight Madness. Don't be surprised if he's a part of the rotation by the beginning of the conference schedule.
Ryan Saunders, son of Detroit Pistons head coach Flip Saunders, sat out last season after wrist surgery and Travis Busch, a transfer from Cal Poly, sat out last season due to NCAA rules for transfers. Busch was a former Mr. Basketball in Minnesota and could be a key reserve for the Gophers.
KEY EARLY-SEASON GAMES: The Gophers travel to Tallahassee Nov. 27 to play Florida State, as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Not only are the Gophers matching up with an ACC opponent that defeated Duke on the road and two-time national champions Florida last season, but they'll also be tested in a true road game. Why does that matter? The Gophers were 1-14 away from Williams Arena last year. They'll have to win away from home if they intend on building on last season's 9-22 record.
PROGRAM DIRECTION: Ralph Sampson III, the son of former Virginia and Houston Rockets center Ralph Sampson, is quickly becoming a highly coveted prospect in the class of 2008. He's caught the eye of Georgia Tech, Kentucky and Maryland, three schools with a history of developing and attracting talented big men. But he's also taken a trip to Minneapolis to see what Smith has to offer. Under Dan Monson, the Gophers wouldn't have had a chance to even get a player like Sampson to consider Minnesota. But Smith's national profile makes him a recruiting threat throughout the country. If he can keep some of Minnesota's best at home, while also luring top preps like Sampson, he'll give this program what it needs to turn things around and to soar to the top of the conference.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP: PG Lawrence McKenzie, SG Kevin Payton, SF Jamal Abu-Shamala, PF Dan Coleman and C Spencer Tollackson
Tollackson missed seven games with a broken left hand last season. To prepare for the rigors of this season, he went through intense conditioning in the offseason and slimmed down to prepare to play a lot of minutes.
Devron Bostick, a guard at Southwestern Illinois Community College, Paul Carter, a forward at West Plains (Mo.) Community College and South Dakota prep center Colton Iverson have all committed to playing for the Gophers next season.
Smith will attempt to take his fourth team to the NCAA tournament and continue his streak of 14 consecutive 20-win seasons as a head coach.
G/F Travis Busch has three years of eligibility remaining after transferring from Cal Poly and sitting out last season.
G Ryan Saunders, a senior walk-on, is the son of Detroit Pistons coach Flip Saunders.
C Colton Iverson of Yankton, S.D., is the only high school senior to commit so far to Minnesota, which also has received a verbal from a junior college player, SF Paul Carter of Missouri State-West Plains Community College.
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