The Golden Gopher men's basketball team opens its exhibition season with a matchup against Bemidji State on Tuesday. The Gophers and Beavers are scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m. Before the action on the court starts, Gophersports.com previews what to look for during the season. Check back for position previews during the rest of the preseason.
As head coach Tubby Smith starts his fifth season at Minnesota, the Gophers hope to get back to the NCAA Tournament, where they made consecutive appearances in 2009 and 2010. The Gophers return three of five starters, but overall they have more newcomers (eight), than returning letterwinners (seven). With two seniors, three juniors, and 10 underclassmen, Smith will look for the right combination of youth and experience.
The Gophers will rely heavily on senior big men Ralph Sampson III and Trevor Mbakwe, who garnered a lot of preseason attention. Mbakwe was named to the John R. Wooden Award preseason watch list, as well as CBSSports.com's Preseason All-America Third Team. Big Ten media members voted him to the preseason all-conference squad. Last season, he led the Big Ten in rebounding (10.5 rpg), held the team's highest scoring average (13.9 ppg), and tallied 19 double-doubles. Mbakwe's physical style and nose for rebounding will make him difficult for teams to stop.
While Mbakwe puts the "power" in power forward, Sampson's offensive game has more finesse and shooting range, as he will often take hook shots or face up for outside shots. Smith said he would like Sampson to drive to the basket more this year in order to draw more fouls. On the defensive side of the ball, Sampson led the team in blocks last year, averaging two per game.
Both Gopher big men gained valuable experience over the summer. Mbakwe attended skills camps and excelled at the World University Games. Sampson worked out in Chicago with Tim Grover, Michael Jordan's personal trainer.
"The seniors are the most experienced and the guys that we feel are the most mature and are going to have to carry the load this year," Smith said.
The Gophers' third and final returning starter is junior forward Rodney Williams. He has always been one of the team's most athletic players, and Smith has challenged him to be more aggressive and physical this season. Williams averaged 6.8 ppg and 3.5 rpg in 2010-11. He played well in spurts last year, and increased aggressiveness could help him be more consistent.
"I think his getting stronger will make him more physical," Smith said. "It'll make him tougher."
Other Gopher returners are sophomore forward Maurice Walker and a trio of sophomore guards: Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi, and Chip Armelin. Walker, still recovering from a knee injury suffered last December, could provide a boost off the bench if he is healthy enough. Hollins led the team in steals (1.2 spg) last year, Ahanmisi played the point at times after senior Al Nolen's injury, and Armelin showed an ability to get to the basket.
While Mbakwe and Sampson are well established in the frontcourt, the Gophers enter the season with a more uncertain situation in the backcourt. With shooting guard Blake Hoffarber and point guard Al Nolen's eligibility exhausted, Minnesota will explore its options on the perimeter. The sophomores as well as junior transfer Julian Welch will contend with a pair of highly-touted freshmen for playing time. Andre Hollins of Memphis, Tenn., and Joe Coleman of Minneapolis, Minn., won Mr. Basketball honors in their respective states as high school seniors, and Smith is excited about their potential.
"They're both freshmen that have shown maturity beyond their years and beyond their experience so far," Smith said. "Those two freshmen are great additions. I don't think that we've recruited two better people in maybe my coaching career."
Three candidates for point guard are Ahanmisi, Welch, and Andre Hollins. Any of them could spend time at shooting guard as well.
The Gophers also welcome junior transfer Andre Ingram, walk-on guard Kendal Shell, and three redshirted players seeing their first action this season. Ingram adds more depth to the frontcourt. Center Elliott Eliason is stronger than when he arrived at Minnesota last year. Forward Oto Osenieks could provide a three-point threat, something Minnesota needs after the graduation of the school's all-time three-point leader in Hoffarber. Redshirt sophomore transfer/walk-on Chris Halvorsen is one of the team's best athletes according to Smith.
Following Tuesday's game, Minnesota will have another exhibition game on Nov. 7 against Augustana before opening the regular season against Bucknell on Nov. 11.
Tickets for the 2011-12 Gopher basketball season can be purchased by calling 1.800.UGOPHER or 612.624.8080, or by visiting mygophersports.com.