The team wrapped up its 23-15 season last week with a loss to Stanford in the NIT Championship. Advancing to Madison Square Garden was one of the biggest "ups" in that season. But the Gophers had to go through a lot of trials to make it that far. GopherSports.com took a look back at the season--with all its ups and downs--and what it means for the team's future.
Losing Mbakwe to an ACL tear was one of the toughest obstacles the Gophers faced this season.
*Mbakwe out: On the day when the Gophers fell to Dayton in the Old Spice Classic championship, losing their undefeated start to the season was the least of their worries. Senior forward and leading scoring Trevor Mbakwe tore his ACL during the game. The Gophers had to finish out the season without his senior leadership, physicality, 14.0 points per game, and 9.1 rebounds per game.
*Not just Mbakwe: The injury bug bit several other players on the team. The Gophers' other senior, Ralph Sampson III, missed three non-conference games and the team's final seven games with injuries. Injuries to Andre Hollins and Julian Welch caused constant shuffling around at the point guard position, and prevented either of the two from getting into a flow for much of the year.
*Heartbreakers: The Gophers suffered their fair share of close losses this season, including three in overtime or double overtime. "I thought the tone was sort of set when we lost in a double-overtime game to Illinois," Smith said. "We had a chance to ice that game, and we didn't. I think that really affected our psyche and our ability to close games out."
*When it rained, it poured: That loss in the Big Ten opener started a four-game losing streak. The Gophers bounced back with three straight wins, but added a six-game slide later in the conference season.
"When we were sitting at 12-1, we thought we were well-positioned to have a successful season, but obviously we didn't, with injuries and other things...But that's no excuse. We lost a lot of close games. We played in (six) overtime games. But I was impressed with how our kids kept their composure all year long. I was very pleased with our young players, especially our freshmen and sophomores, how they developed and how they matured." -Tubby Smith
*Youth movement: Following Mbakwe's injury, the Gophers rattled off six straight non-conference wins without the senior forward, and without Sampson in the first two. Junior Rodney Williams transitioned almost perfectly to the 4-spot with Mbakwe out, and redshirt freshman Elliott Eliason filled in admirably for Sampson. Freshman Joe Coleman went on a hot streak in the middle of the season. When Andre Hollins recovered from an ankle injury, he and Williams tag-teamed as the team's top scoring threats and on-court leaders. Sophomore Austin Hollins also showed significant improvement from last year.
Williams emerged as a team leader and major scoring threat.
*Minnesota record books: The Gophers led the Big Ten in blocks for the fourth consecutive year with 186, Tubby Smith earned his 100th win at Minnesota, and Ralph Sampson III joined an elite group (1,000 points, 500 rebounds, and 150 blocks).
*Resiliency: Although the Gophers finished 6-12 in Big Ten play each of the last two seasons, this season had a different feel to it than last season. This year's team responded better to injuries, having multiple players step up at different points throughout the year. This year's team also made it one round farther in the Big Ten Tournament and earned an invitation to the NIT. They exceeded expectations there, and Williams and Andre Hollins earned all-tournament honors with their stellar play. "I'm really proud of how (the Gophers) responded in postseason play," Smith said. "I thought it was truly a team effort to get the 23 wins that we did get."
"I like the guys that we have returning," Smith said. Barring any departures by non-seniors, the Gophers will bring back most of this year's roster. Williams will look to improve even more during his final year. By the end of this year, he looked more comfortable shooting jump shots, and further work on that aspect of his game during the summer could make him even more unstoppable. Andre Hollins will need to cut down on his turnovers, but he still had an impressive freshman season, and enters 2012-13 armed with all the experience he gained this year. Most of the other Gopher youngsters also showed improvement the season, and the Gophers return all five of their postseason starters, a good sign for the future.
Another good sign: Mbakwe was granted the option of a sixth year, and the Gophers have written to the NCAA about possibilities for keeping 16 players. If Mbakwe does choose to stay--an option he is currently leaning towards--the Gophers would still need to make sure that his knee is truly recovered before he is able to play. A healthy Mbakwe would give a huge boost to the Gophers in both rebounding and scoring. Maurice Walker, who also tore his ACL, should be ready to go for sure. He was participating fully in practice by the end of this season.
The possibility of players returning from injury, the team's postseason run, the emergence of several young players, and the incoming freshman class of Wally Ellenson and Charles Buggs all give Gopher fans good reason to look forward to 2012-13.