Big Ten Team Previews: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Posted by KTrahan on October 24th, 2012

Throughout the preseason, the Big Ten microsite will be rolling out these featured breakdowns of each of the 12 league schools. Today’s release is the Minnesota Golden Gophers. 

Where We Left Off: Minnesota’s 2011-12 season can best be described as streaky. The Gophers started the year 12-1, but lost their first four conference games before a three-game winning streak that included a good win at Indiana. Minnesota then traded wins and losses before ending the regular season on a 1-6 slide. However, the Gophers got hot in the Big Ten Tournament, knocking off Northwestern and nearly doing the same to Michigan. They then made a great run in the NIT, including a win against Washington before losing in the championship game to Stanford. It certainly was an up-and-down year, but it ended with plenty of promise.

Tubby’s Minnesota Teams Can Never Seem to Get Healthy and Eligible at the Same Time (AP)

Positives: This could be one of the most talented teams that Tubby Smith has had in Minnesota, and some — including yours truly — see the Gophers as a sleeper in the Big Ten title race. Sixth-year senior Trevor Mbakwe will be the face of the team, and the Gophers got a huge break when he avoided jail time after a parole violation for a summer DUI. This is a versatile team, which will allow the Gophers to play several big or small lineups. Talented young players such as Andre Hollins, Joe Coleman and Elliott Eliason will be complemented by more experienced players, such as Julian Welch, Rodney Williams, and Mbakwe.

Negatives: Can this team be consistent? Of course, a lot of last year’s on-court issues can be blamed on Mbakwe’s injury before conference play. The Gophers were forced to throw a number of talented freshmen into action, and while there were bright spots early — particularly the win against Indiana — it took awhile for things to come together. Can Minnesota take advantage of the experience gained by its younger players last year, or will inconsistency continue to be the story of a team that can’t get over the hump?

Best Case: As I mentioned earlier, I’m pretty high on the Gophers this year. It’s undeniable that they’re one of the most talented teams in the league, especially with Mbakwe coming back fully into action. Now, they have to put everything together. Minnesota has a tough non-conference schedule, with games at Florida State and USC and a home game against Duke. If they can get through those games with two wins, they’ll likely be ranked heading into Big Ten season. If all goes well, Hollins could be the surprise player of the year in the conference, while Williams and Mbakwe form one of the top forward duos in the country. The talent is there for this team to make a deep NCAA Tournament run if Tubby can generate some a little off-court luck to go with his on-court talent.

Worst Case: The non-conference slate will set the tone for Minnesota’s season, and if the Gophers struggle in their three big non-conference games, things could spiral out of control before Big Ten play hits. If Minnesota continues its inconsistent play from years past, it will struggle to make the NCAA Tournament again. Obviously, Mbakwe is talented, but he may not be the same player now that he’s back from injury, and his offseason issues could have taken their toll. There’s also no guarantee that Hollins will continue the upward progression that he showed at the end of last season. An NIT bid seems like the worst-case scenario for this team, but it’s certainly not out of the question if things don’t go right.

Projected Lineup:

  • 1 — Andre Hollins (So)
  • 2 — Julian Welch (Sr)
  • 3 — Joe Coleman (So)
  • 4 — Rodney Williams Jr. (Sr)
  • 5 — Trevor Mbakwe (GS)

Key Reserves: Elliott Eliason (So, C), Austin Hollins (Jr, G), Oto Osenieks (So, F), Maverick Ahanmisi (Jr, G)

Lineup: Minnesota has a couple of different choices for its lineup. It depends whether the Gophers want to get their five best players on the court or go with a more traditional lineup. The lineup we project has the team’s five best players on the court, but it’s a small lineup with Coleman at small forward and Mbakwe at center. That can certainly work, but it puts the Gophers at a disadvantage against some bigger teams. If that doesn’t work, Minnesota has the ability to go big with true center Elliott Eliason, who needs to work on his offensive game but was a very good defender as a freshman last year, especially at the end of the season. Additionally, Austin Hollins is a proven player who will see plenty of minutes at guard despite Minnesota’s tremendous guard depth. Expect a lot of different looks from the Gophers this year, depending on their given match-ups with each opponent.

KTrahan (60 Posts)

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