Big Ten Summer Check In: Minnesota Golden GophersPosted by jnowak on July 18th, 2012
There may not be a program in the Big Ten with more optimism this summer surrounding one key component than Minnesota, which has another season with star forward Trevor Mbakwe to look forward to. The 6’8″ bruiser is spending his summer working back from ACL surgery after he went down just seven games into his senior year, leaving the Golden Gophers to pick up the pieces in a season that had more ups and downs than a Cedar Point rollercoaster ride. These warm months are about taking the momentum from a late-season NIT run, mixing the team’s star player back into things, and getting things rolling for the 2012-13 campaign.
- Evaluating Last Year: Not a whole lot stands out about Minnesota’s season if you look at it as a whole, but when broken down into phases, there’s plenty to pull out. The Gophers were undefeated until the Dayton game, which is when Mbakwe suffered his injury. They managed to plough through the early non-conference schedule still with a 12-1 mark. But things cooled off considerably in Big Ten play, when the club went 0-4 to start and had another six-game losing streak mixed in there. Tubby Smith salvaged the season by running to the NIT championship game in New York, putting youngster Andre Hollins on display. Ralph Sampson III is gone after yet another underwhelming season, but there’s some young talent on this club that Minnesota fans have to look forward to.
- State of the Program: That young talent, mixed in with the return of Mbakwe, could leave Minnesota with an interesting inside-out game that could really give people fits in the conference this season. But one thing that would really provide the program with some stability and allow Smith to sink his teeth in would be the contract extension the university has been promising him for some time. There was some turnover in the athletic department as Norwood Teague was hired, but he said a month ago when he was formally introduced that negotiations with Smith were in the “11th hour.” What’s happened since then? No doubt Smith wants to get the deal done, and when you’re trying to recruit and lay the groundwork for the future, it’s most important to know what the school has invested in for the long run.
- Players Not Returning: With Mbakwe returning from injury, the Gophers gain more than they lose from last season’s squad. Minnesota also brings in two freshmean (three-star recruits Charles Buggs and Wally Ellenson) while losing Sampson and backup guard Chip Armelin as a transfer. They lose just 5.2 PPG in 13.7 MPG from Armelin, while Sampson was a huge presence in the post over the course of his career but never really reached his potential. The seven-footer had a big dropoff in PPG (10.2 last year, 7.9 last year) and never demonstrated a consistent desire to take over a game in crunch time. But is a defensively-oriented guy like that easy to replace?
- Immediate Needs: Sampson wasn’t one of the team’s go-to scorers, but his presence in the post will still be missed. Mbakwe plays in the paint, but he’s not a traditional frontcourt player by any stretch, so Minnesota needs a player it can consistently rely on to post up on the block and allow Hollins and the rest of the backcourt to work on the perimeter. And the more the ball is in the paint, the better chance for Mbakwe to do what he does best — go get loose balls and offensive rebounds. If the Gophers can find someone to draw opposing frontcourts in, it will free up Minnesota’s best scoring threats elsewhere.
- Key Player(s) to Step Up: For the reasons mentioned above, look for rising sophomore Elliott Eliason to take a step forward as the team’s primary center. Because he’s inexperienced (2.6 PPG and 3.9 RPG in just over 15 minutes per contest last season) and the Gophers don’t have a wealth of frontcourt talent, look for Smith to go with a smaller starting lineup (that probably won’t include Eliason) and to typically employ a quick and athletic five on the floor. But against some Big Ten teams, the Gophers will have to defend in the paint and look to have an offensive presence there as well.
- Conclusion: As mentioned earlier, there may not be one team in the Big Ten who can point to a single returning player this season with as much anticipation as Minnesota in regards to Mbakwe (all due respect to Michigan and Trey Burke). A core that also includes Hollins, Rodney Williams and Julian Welch will give him a hand for a team that will do no worse than finish in the middle of the conference next season. Teague would be wise to lock Smith up for the foreseeable future because he’s proven he can put a winning product on the floor.