By Jeff Fett
Fresh off of a 23-win season, the Gopher Men's basketball team hopes its depth will help them through a tough non-conference schedule and a brutal Big Ten schedule.
This season, the Gophers return most of their team from the 2011-2012 campaign. On the roster this year, at least 13 out of the 15 on the roster saw minutes at some point last year.
Some of the key returners from last year's NIT Finalist team include sophomore point guard Andre Hollins, junior point guard Austin Hollins, sophomore forward Joe Coleman, senior forward Rodney Williams, and sixth year senior Trevor Mbakwe.
Gophers Head Coach Tubby Smith says the depth of his team is something he hasn't had in a few years.
Point guard Andre Hollins figures to be a key cog for the Gophers this season.
"We've got good depth--that is one thing I'm excited about," Smith said. "Depth though is only good if you have everybody available to you. That's been one of our problems over the last two years. We haven't had everyone available to us."
Last season, the Gophers depth was depleted early in the season when Mbakwe and red-shirt sophomore forward Maurice Walker went down with knee injuries.
While both Walker and Mbakwe are expected to be back at the start of the season, Mbakwe was having a career year when he went down.
Mbakwe was leading the team in scoring with 14 points per game when he went down just seven games into the season. He says he expects to be ready at the start of the year.
"The knee is doing great," Mbakwe said on media day. "I expect to play the first game. The knee is getting stronger by the day. Our staff has done a great job with slowly, putting me back into the lineup and with the team. I feel comfortable."
The Gophers depth will be key early-on. The schedule features tough road tests in a Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup at Florida State and a December trip to the University of Southern California.
The Gophers will also take part in the in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. The Gophers will play Duke in their first game. The tournament also features teams like Memphis, Louisville, Stanford and Missouri among others.
The Big Ten schedule could be even tougher. There are five teams from the Big Ten featured in the USA Today Preseason Coaches' poll. Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State are in the top-five alone.
In what will be a tough schedule for the Gophers, the team will rely on its senior leadership.
Among those returning is Rodney Williams. With a solid year this year, Williams could become only the sixth player in Gopher history to score 1,000 points, haul down 500 rebounds and dish out 200 assists.
Williams believes the team can make a run in the NCAA tournament this year.
"I definitely think we can be a Sweet 16 team at least. We're a real deep team," Williams said. "We got a lot of guys at every position that are really good, so I think we're going to be a team to be reckon with this year."