Future is brighter still for Gophers

The Gophers will return the majority of their key contributors and add a big recruiting class next year, raising expectations for a program quickly on the rise.

It didn't end the way the Gophers wanted it to in the NCAA Tournament, but who would have ever thought they'd make it this far in the first place?

All but two players are expected to return next season. And one of the nation's top-20 recruiting classes will join a group of players who finished this season with a 22-11 record, an NCAA appearance and an upset win over the No. 1 overall seed, Louisville, only two seasons after going 9-22.

Minnesota coach Tubby Smith says he thought his team was going to make the NCAAs last season, but he's still ahead of schedule in the minds of many. This is a team that had lost three seniors who were also its top three scorers, brought in five newcomers but still had a better year than last season's squad.

The 6-foot-11 duo of Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III will benefit with some work in the weight room. Leading scorer Lawrence Westbrook will be back, too. Mr. Everything Damian Johnson's not going anywhere. And incoming freshman Royce White, a 6-7, 220-pound forward, might be better than anyone on Minnesota's roster right now. The only problem is that next season fans will expect even more.

TEXAS 76, MINNESOTA 62: The Gophers (22-11) jumped out to an 11-2 lead and kept things close for the entire first half. But Texas guard A.J. Abrams hit four 3-pointers in a row to blow open a three-point game, and the Longhorns rolled to a win in the NCAA Tournament's first round at Greensboro, N.C.

Dexter Pittman and his 6-foot-11, 298-pound frame scored 17 points against a much thinner Minnesota frontcourt.

NOTES, QUOTES

  • The Gophers' 22 victories were the fourth-most in school history. The 21 regular-season victories ranked as the second-most in school history.

  • This was Minnesota's first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2005 and its sixth appearance overall.

  • Jamal Abu-Shamala, a senior co-captain, has used up his eligibility. He intends to continue to play for the Jordanian national team and to look for a chance to play professional basketball overseas. He scored six points in the NCAA Tournament loss to Texas.

  • Lawrence Westbrook was held to four points in the second half against Texas, but he did enough in the first half to make Texas coach Rick Barnes key in on him after halftime. Barnes said he told his team that stopping Westbrook was the only way to slow the Gophers.

  • Damian Johnson finished with 13 points against Texas, but two quick fouls limited his minutes in the first half. After the Gophers had built up a nine-point lead, the Longhorns gradually bounced back with Johnson, the team's best all-around defender, on the bench.

    HOW THEY GOT HERE: The Gophers used a relatively soft nonconference schedule to race out to a 16-1 start, then made it stand as they ended the season with five losses in their last eight games. The Gophers fell to Michigan in their regular season finale, then beat Northwestern in the first round of the tournament before losing to Michigan State in the quarterfinals. That 70-64 victory against Louisville in December now looms huge for the Gophers, since the Cardinals are considered the top seed in the tournament.

    SCOUTING REPORT: Minnesota's depth and ability to rotate players were well documented, but that also left the Gophers without a real go-to player. Lawrence Westbrook was the only player in double figures in points (12.4), but even he was benched for a stretch late in the season. The Gophers won with defense, but they were prone to turnovers for prolonged stretches. Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III gave them a pair of athletic 7-foot freshmen, difficult for any team to match up against.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "Tubby deserves the credit. Tubby, I believe, is one of the great coaches in America. I think what I love about him is that he, which is true of all good coaches, gets the best out of each individual young person that plays for him." — Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi, to the Star Tribune.


    GAME REVIEW:
    Minnesota 66, Northwestern 53 (Big Ten tournament first round)
    Michigan State 64, Minnesota 56 (Big Ten tournament quarterfinals)
    Texas 76, Minnesota 62 (NCAA Tournament East Regional first round)

    GAME PREVIEW:

    Season over.


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