At No. 14 in the nation, the Golden Gopher basketball team currently holds its highest AP poll ranking in Tubby Smith's tenure as head coach. Minnesota moved up from the No. 21 slot it was in last week. The Gophers also made their first appearance of the season in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll, checking in at No. 21.
The Gophers (8-1) entered the season outside the top 25, but earned respect of the voters after emerging from the Battle 4 Atlantis--arguably the toughest preseason tournament this year--with two wins and following up with a win at Florida State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Minnesota's highest ranking in the Smith era so far was 13th in the ESPN/USA Today poll on both Nov. 29, 2010, and Dec. 27, 2010. The Gophers spent 12 straight weeks in the top-25 polls during the 2010-11 seasons.
Some big challenges are coming, but the Gopher men's basketball team appears to be coming together as they prepare for a tough stretch of games where they'll challenge some of NCAA basketball's elite.
The Gophers are off to a 4-0 start this year. So far, the Gophers have been dominant, with their closest game by 15 points. Head coach Tubby Smith says the team is starting to bond.
"I feel good about where we are as far as the play of our players. I felt good about it for the last few years. I just want to make sure we stay healthy," Smith said. " We have a very unselfish team and we're playing together."
While the Gophers haven't been challenged just yet, the first few games have helped the team gel with each other as they prepare to do battle with some of the nation's top programs.
Trevor Mbakwe and the Gophers take on Duke this Thanksgiving.
The Gophers are hitting a stretch where starting Nov. 22 they will play eight games in their next two-and-a-half weeks.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the Gophers will play in the Battle for Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. In their opening round game, the Gophers will take on #5 Duke.
The tournament also features 2012 NCAA tournament qualifiers in Missouri, Virginia Commonwealth University, Louisville and Memphis. Stanford and the University of Northern Iowa will also participate in the tournament.
The Gophers do not get much of a break after the weekend tournament. On Nov. 27, they will travel to Tallahassee to play Florida State. The game with the Seminoles is a part of the ACC/Big Ten challenge.
After a couple of home games, the Gophers go back on the road to Los Angles to face the University of Southern California Dec. 8.
The schedule gets a little easier after the Dec. 11 game against North Dakota State University. The Gophers do not play a game for 11 days.
Smith says he'd rather not take some of these long road trips after the tournament, but that's how the schedule falls.
"We'd rather not be going into these places to be honest with you, but that's how it fell with the ACC/Big Ten Challenge," Smith said. "It is compressing a lot of games in a short period of time. Unfortunately we have that issue with our academic calendar--so that's why were like that. We play one game in about 11 days. I don't think anybody else has that long a break in the country, so its a real challenge for us in the scheduling, so that's why you see us with so many games in such a short period of time."
On Sunday, Nov. 18, the Gophers take on the University of
Richmond at Williams Arena at 6 p.m. The Spiders are 3-0 so far this year. Gophersports.com basketball beat writer Jeff Fett Spoke with Spiders Assistant Head Coach Kevin McGeehan to
learn more about Richmond and what his concerns are about playing the Gophers.
Gophersports.com: Who's the star of your team---what will make this team succeed this
"Our best player is probably is Darien Brothers. He's a good shooter--like 6'2"
or 6'3" strong guard. He really shoots well from three.
"We have a couple of guys who can score from the perimeter--we're
a pretty good perimeter team. We have one returning big guy that's a very good
player---a strong interior kid--and then a bunch of young kids who are going to
be good players."
Gophersports.com: What kind of style does your team play?
"We like to share the ball and move a lot. We do a lot of
passing and cutting--keeping the court spread. We try to move a lot and take
advantage of space. I think we share the ball pretty well."
Gophersports.com: Are your goals lots of possessions or are you methodical in how you
handle the basketball?
"This year we've tried to make an emphasis of getting the
ball up quick and trying to score quicker. We feel like we have good wing
players that can run and make good decisions and score in transition, so we've
kind of made that a point of emphasis."
Gophersports.com: What are your concerns about playing the Gophers?
"I think they are talented at every position. It seems to be
that they have good depth right now---a lot of experience back. Anytime you
play a Big Ten team in particular, you know there's going to be physicality
playing there on the road. You have to be ready for all of that.
"We've played a lot of teams through the years---big teams
and in BCS conferences and I think that's one of the things you have to mentally
prepare for as you go into a game, where you know all those guys are big and
strong and physical and athletic. I think that's no exception with Minnesota
being like that."
Gophersports.com: Richmond is taking on some tough teams on the road, like Minnesota,
Kansas and Wake Forest. Why do you make your schedule this tough?
"I think the Atlantic 10 is a really good conference, you
know arguably better than some of the big BCS conferences pending on the year.
So game in and game out in the Atlantic 10 you are facing really good teams. There
are very few bad teams and so in order to prepare for league play---and then
hopefully we're thinking about the ultimate goal, the NCAA tournament, we're
trying to play the best schedule we can. I think the best way to do that is to
try to play some teams that are in that mix. Teams who are going to be
tournament teams or really good teams in BCS leagues."
Gophersports.com: You are off to a great start at 3-0 on the year. Have their been any
surprises you weren't expecting so far this year?
"I wouldn't say surprises. I would say some of the things
we've tried to emphasize you know in the off-season. We had a trip to Italy
during the summer, which allowed us to practice and compete overseas.
"Some of the things that we started to talk about and try to
implement there and in practice have shown up in the games, which is a good
sign. The things that are going to be points of emphasis are actually
manifesting themselves in the games. I think that's a good thing.
"Surprises, not really at this point. You know we were
hoping to come to Minnesota at 3-0 and that's where we are--so this is a really
good test for us."
Gophersports.com: Is there anything else you want us to know about the Richmond
basketball team or the University of Richmond?
"Richmond has a very rich tradition basketball wise. Two
years ago, we were in the Sweet 16. Going back to the 80's and parts of the
90's, Richmond has been really, really good at basketball.
"I think it's a unique place and a special place because its
an excellent academic institution where kids are going to class and working
hard in the classroom--having to balance academic life and athletics.
"You can concentrate more on basketball here. We're a small
school and everything's hard and kids have to show up and go to class all of
that stuff. So there's something unique and special about that in our guys
representing themselves well in the classroom and on the court."
The longer you miss someone, the more you appreciate it when they return. For fans of Golden Gopher men's basketball, it's been far too long since senior forward Trevor Mbakwe and sophomore forward Maurice Walker have played in a game.
Both players, of course, made appearances in each of Minnesota's two exhibitions during the past couple weeks. But, officially, tonight's 72-36 season-opening win against American University marked the first time in what has seemed like ages that the pair of Gopher big men had donned a Maroon and Gold uniform.
Trevor Mbakwe made his return to the court Friday night against American University.
For Mbakwe, tonight's game was his first since tearing the ACL in his right knee during an 86-70 loss to Dayton on Nov. 27, 2011. The wait for Walker's return has been even longer, as he had not played for the Gophers since tearing the posterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee versus South Dakota State on Dec. 23, 2010.
The 6-foot-8 Mbakwe entered the game to a rousing ovation with 7:59 remaining in the first half. He played 14 minutes, finishing with four points, three rebounds, two steals, and two blocked shots. And, for those who stayed around long enough, Mbakwe's alley-oop dunk on an assist from Chris Halvorsen with 1:39 left in the game might have been the highlight of the night.
A potential National Basketball Association draftee, Mbakwe hopes to return to the form he displayed during his junior season and in the first seven games last season. He led the Big Ten in rebounding as a junior, pulling down 10.5 boards per game to go along with a scoring average of 13.9 ppg. Last year, he earned preseason all-Big Ten honors and was averaging 14.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per contest before the injury.
Walker is an imposing presence at 6-foot-10, 289 pounds. He averaged 3.7 points and 2.8 rebounds per game during the 12 games he played in 2010-11.
Like Mbakwe, he entered the game to an extended roar from the crowd of 10,172, and he saw limited action. Walker scored four points, grabbed a pair of rebounds, dished out an assist, and blocked a shot during his nine minutes on the floor.
Mbakwe commented after the game about how fun it was to have Big Mo back on the court.
"It was great. He's been working hard for the last year and a half," Mbakwe said. "I'm happier about his comeback than mine. He's been through a lot. It was great to see him out there, the crowd gave him a big ovation and he's going to be big for us this year."
As for his own return, and how long it might take him to get back to full strength, Mbakwe added, "I don't know, I think it's just a confidence thing, trusting my knee, and knowing that the doctors did a great job. I think now, conditioning is the biggest part. My knee is fine, it doesn't hurt at all."
If that's the case, Gophers fans are going to be happy campers this season.
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."
American University head coach Jeff Jones and the Eagles travel to Williams Arena Friday.
From time to time during the 2012-13 season Gophersports.com basketball beat writer Jeff Fett will check in with someone that is close to the Gophers upcoming opponent. Can't get any closer that American head coach Jeff Jones. Jones has been at the helm at American for 12 seasons and has won a program-leading 202 games. We asked Coach Jones several questions about his team, and what he hopes to accomplish against Minnesota and the rest of the year. Please see below:
GopherSports.com: Who are your top returning players and which ones will make your team perform well this year?
Jeff Jones: "Our best returning player is our senior point guard Danny Munoz. He had a real solid year last year and worked very hard in the off-season and has come back. I think he's poised to have a terrific year for us and he's going to be vitally important in anything that we do.
"Our starting center from last year returns, (6'10", junior) Tony Wroblicky. When you look at his numbers from his sophomore year, you know its not real impressive, but down the stretch his statistics were on the upward trend, and so I think he's going to have a good year for us.
"A player who's returning, but wasn't on the team last year, was Stephen Lumpkins. He was a second-team All-Patriot league player two years ago. He averaged 14 and eight I think. Last year, he was in the Kansas City Royals organization as a pitcher, so he didn't play basketball for a year. He's kind of picked up where he left off. You certainly don't see any rust in his game and we're going to need him to be a big factor for us as well.
"So these would be the top three. You know for our league, for Minnesota, its no big deal, or for a Big Ten school, but for our league, having a 6'10"- a 6'9" guy in the lineup at the same time, that's a pretty big front line."
GopherSports.com: What kind of style do you play?
Jeff Jones: "I would say moderate. Offensively, if the break is there, we'll certainly explore those opportunities, but we certainly don't want to get into a real fast paced game. We prefer more deliberate than break-neck speed. A majority of the time, we're going to run a lot of sets and try to see if we can create shots through our offense."
GopherSports.com: What do you hope to accomplish in your first game of the year against Minnesota?
Jeff Jones: "As far as the game against Minnesota, you know, the simple goal is we want to try to win the game. Short of that, we want to play as well as we can. We want to learn from the opportunity. Whoever the Patriot League team is, the way you go to the NCAA tournament, you're going to be playing somebody like Minnesota or Kansas or Georgetown or other teams that are on our schedule, so you want to try to play against that top competition.
"Obviously, our guys are well aware of the late season stretch that Minnesota put on. They're young, but experienced and they virtually have everyone coming back. They're fully aware of that, but I think you know for us, it's something that our guys can be excited about because they've read about and watched on TV about Minnesota and they know for us to have any chance, we've got to play extremely well."
GopherSports.com: What makes you schedule tough teams like Minnesota, Kansas and Georgetown?
Jeff Jones: "We want to challenge ourselves. I'm a big believer of it. I've been doing this a long time. I've known Tubby for 25 years. Norwood Teague, the AD there, is one of my very best friends. We used to work together at the University of Virginia.
"We always want to challenge ourselves. That's the way you get better. Going up against programs the likes of Minnesota, Kansas or Georgetown, that helps you prepare to be the best team we possibly can by the time conference play rolls around.
"We've beaten DePaul, Florida State. We've beaten Maryland. You know every once in a while, you can pull off that upset. You know in order to do that, we've got to be a little bit lucky. We've got to play really, really hard and we've got to play really, really well."
GopherSports.com: What are your goals for your team in the Patriot League?
Jeff Jones: "Our goals for the year are to win the Patriot League and be playing our best basketball at the end of the year. The Patriot League is a one bid league, so you've got to be ready for the tournament and see if you can win that title and participate in the NCAA tournament.
"I certainly hope we can be in the top half (of the conference). For the last 12 years, since American has been in the Patriot League, we've never finished below fourth. We've been probably over a decade the most consistent team in the Patriot League, and that's something that we've prided ourselves on, that year in and year out, we want to be in the picture. We want to be competitive for that Patriot League title.
"You know this year, I believe we were picked third in a lot of preseason polls, you know, we'll see. Bucknell and Leigh are in the top two right now and on paper, are clearly the two best teams, but the great thing about athletics is that the competitions are played on the court and you know we'll get a chance to work hard and improve. When conference play rolls around, you know hopefully we can handle that gap and be a factor in the conference picture."
GopherSports.com: Anything else about American University you want Minnesotans to know?
Jeff Jones: "We're a small school in Washington, D.C. People hear Washington, D.C. and I think often times they think in terms of an urban setting, but it's a very small, but a very nice traditional campus. We're up here in the northwest and it's a great situation."
As the NBA Developmental League's fall camps begin, three former Golden Gophers will participate in the action. Dan Coleman, Ralph Sampson III, and Paul Carter are all on camp rosters. Another former Gopher, Dusty Rychart, is playing in Spain.
Coleman will work out with the Skyforce, the D-League affiliate for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers. Coleman and the other 16 invited players will begin camp on Nov. 10 and conclude on Nov. 21. The team will determine its opening day roster on the final day of camp.
Coleman played for the Gophers from 2004 to 2008. He currently ranks 15th in school history in scoring with 1,317 points. Coleman earned All-Big Ten Honorable Mention acclaim as a senior. After graduation, he played on the Timberwolves' summer league team before signing with a team in Portugal. He has spent the past few years playing in France.
Sampson is the most recent Gopher graduate to try his hand at the pros.
Sampson was selected by the Reno Bighorns with the 11th pick in the third round of Friday night's D-League draft. The Bighorns are the affiliate for the Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz. Sampson concluded his Gopher career last season as one of just five players in school history to compile 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, and 150 blocks.
Carter remains with the Idaho Stampede (affiliate for the Portland Trail Blazers) for the second-straight season. He averaged 10.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last year.
Carter played two seasons with the Gophers before transferring to Illinois-Chicago for the 2010-11 season to be closer to his sister.
Rychart has been playing professionally in Australia for a decade. He currently lives in Cairns, where he plays for the Cairns Taipans. He writes a blog about his experiences.
Rychart played for the Gophers from 1998 to 2002. He ranks 17th in school history with 1,268 career points. He made the All-Big Ten Third Team as a senior.
Join Gopher basketball play-by-play voices Mike Grimm (men's) and Corbu Stathes (women's) as they host the second annual "Media Day Live" broadcast on GopherSports.com this Friday, Oct. 12 beginning at 3:30 p.m.
Mike and Corbu will host a wide variety of guests during the half-hour live broadcast, including head coaches Tubby Smith and Pam Borton, as well as Rodney Williams, Trevor Mbakwe & Andre Hollins from the men's team and Rachel Banham from the women's team.
Tubby Smith will be among the guests at "Media Day Live" Friday on GopherSports.com
Basketball fans can join in on the action by Tweeting Mike (@MikeGrimm3) and Corbu (@CorbuStathes) questions before the broadcast OR via the live chat feature on our Media Day Live page during the broadcast. Quotes from the broadcast will be live Tweeted from the official accounts of Gopher Basketball, @GopherBBall and @GophersWBB.
Basketball Media Day Live Guest Schedule (times approximate):
3:00 - 3:35: Tubby Smith 3:35 - 3:40: Trevor Mbakwe 3:40 - 3:45: Rodney Williams 3:45 - 3:50: Andre Hollins 3:50 - 4:00: Pam Borton and Rachel Banham
The University of Minnesota men's and women's basketball programs will officially begin the season by hosting "Gopher All-Star Friday Night" on Oct. 12 at Williams Arena. The event will begin at 7:00 p.m.; the entire night's schedule is available by clicking here. The Williams Arena doors will open at 7:00 p.m. in preparation for the evening's first event.
Come out to Williams Arena on Friday, Oct. 12 for the 2012 Gopher Basketball All-Star Friday Night!
As you enter the arena, register to win a trip for 2 to the 2012 Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
One randomly selected winner will receive airfare for 2, hotel accommodations for 4 nights at Atlantis Paradise Island, tickets to the 2012 Battle for Atlantis tournament and more!
Register to win boxes and entrance slips will be available around the arena's concourse. Other prizes will be given away throughout the evening, including restaurant gift cards, Gopher apparel, an Apple iPad and more!
The Battle 4 Atlantis grand prize will be given away before the Men's Basketball Scrimmage and you must be present to win.
Following the debut of last season's highly successful "All Star Friday Night" event, the Gopher men's basketball team wants fans to save the date of Friday, Oct. 12 for the 2nd iteration of this fun event.