Around the Big Ten ‘09: Minnesota

Dylan Burkhardt

Previously: Illinois, Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin

Minnesota plays a dramatically different style of basketball than Michigan but their program is in a very similar spot. Jonathan, of From the Barn (new design and all!), agreed to answer some questions about the Gopher’s upcoming season. There is no doubt that the Michigan/Minnesota games should be fun, especially after last year’s regular season finale at the Barn.

Similar to Michigan, Minnesota returns practically their entire team. Tell me a little bit about the optimism surrounding Tubby’s program up there. How high are the expectations? Big Ten title? Top 5? Sweet 16?

The Gophers have lost almost nothing since last year other than dead weight. Kevin Payton was a fan favorite and a great teammate, but he mostly waved a towel. Travis Busch fell down a lot when he wasn’t trying to steal the role of the world’s shortest power (guard) forward from a certain Wolverine. Jonathan Williams was large. Jamal Abu-Shamala had a few good games but was largely one-dimensional. Everyone who is anyone is coming back, and with a great recruiting class, this just may be “the year.”

Minnesotans are good pessimistic Lutherans, however, and we know not to get our hopes too high. The Gophers could be as high as #2 in the conference, and as low as #6 or #7. A trip to the NCAA tournament appears certain. One win in the NCAA tournament appears likely. Anything more, while definitely possible, shouldn’t pass the lips of any real Gopher fan.

Lawrence Westbrook

Predicted starting lineup?

Lawrence Westbrook and Al Nolen should start the season together in the back court. Damian Johnson, while not a true small forward, can do too many things and should be the defensive player of the year in the conference after being robbed of the award a year ago. Inside it gets complicated. Ralph Sampson III has the most potential of any of Minnesota’s returning big men, and should start at center. Trevor Mbakwe excelled at the Junior College level after an injury plagued season at Marquette, but it is not apparent how this will translate to Big Ten play, or if he will even play. Colton Iverson showed flashes and kept starting, but was often pulled in the first few minutes of the game and had a hard time getting off the bench. Royce White is the Gophers best freshman in years, but with so much experience in front of him he might not start until the second half of the conference season.

Minnesota’s incoming class consists of Royce White (profile), Bryant Allen, Justin Cobbs, Trevor Mbakwe, and Rodney Williams. Which of these kids are expected to be earlier contributors? Is Mr. Mbakwe ever going to make his way onto the court?

Justin Cobbs, Royce White, and Trevor Mbakwe

Cobbs, a point guard from Los Angeles and White, a power forward who started his high school career two minutes from Williams Arena will be two of the first players off the bench every game and depending on how they develop may be starting by the end of the year. White is projected to the freshman of the year in the conference and could be something of a bulkier Evan Turner.

rodney-williamsRodney Williams

Rodney Williams, a small forward and childhood friend of Williams, may be the most athletic player in America, really. His talent, albeit raw, will be tough to keep off the court, but he needs to work on his shooting and defensive discipline. Right now he relies too much on dunks on offense and speed on defense if he makes a mistake. Bryan Allen is the state of Missouri’s all time leading scorer, beating out some Tyler Hansbrough character you may have heard of. Right now he is on the football team, and will be there at least through December. He has said that he hopes to play basketball, but no one knows if that will happen.

Trevor Mbakwe has found himself in some legal trouble, and his status is up in the air. To make a long story short, he is accused of assault, but the witness account and the circumstances of the incident are anything but an open and shut case. The trial will be after the season, so it will be up to Tubby Smith and the athletic department to figure out what to do with Mbakwe. Do you keep a kid who may be innocent from playing, or do you let a possibly soon to be convicted criminal have the privilege of playing college basketball. In light of the accusation, he has been cleared to practice but not to play in games, which gets us just about nowhere.

nolenAl Nolen

The glaring weakness of last year’s Minnesota team was that they turned the ball over too much (30% of their possessions against U-M in March). Will we see an improvement in ball handling?

One can only hope. Al Nolen will have another year under his belt, and won’t be learning on the job like he was last year, his first at this level as the primary ball handler. Most Gopher fans think and hope that he could be taking the Eric Harris path. Some of you fans of mid-90’s Big Ten basketball may remember Harris as Bobby Jackson’s back court mate when Minnesota went to the Final Four that never happened. He was positively dreadful his first two seasons, succeeding only at dribbling into double teams in the corner. Then something clicked and he was a great defender and good enough on the offensive end to get the job done.

Cobbs should also be a big help in this area. Last year the Gophers didn’t really have a back up point guard. Lawrence Westbrook doesn’t have a point guard mentality and it showed when ever he had to set up the offense. Devoe Joseph is more of a shooting guard who played out of position when Nolen was out of the game. The pressure will be off Nolen to some degree, and if he struggles he won’t stay on the court.

What is this team’s Achilles heel?

Minnesota’s big Achilles’ heel is scoring. Fortunately, they of course play in the Big Ten where good defense and mediocre offense can still get a team a long way. The Gophers should improve in this area though. Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III should be more of a presence down low, opening up opportunities for outside shooters like Blake Hoffarber, who had a down year last season and never seemed to get his shot back after sitting out a few games with sprained ankle during the non-conference season. If the inside game doesn’t draw the attention of the defense, Minnesota’s perimeter players won’t get open, and you will see a lot of Al Nolen dribbling out the shot clock, driving into the lane, and panic.

Any big out of conference games this year? Last year’s Minnesota slate was painfully weak besides that big win versus Louisville… in Arizona.

Over Thanksgiving the Gophers will head to Anaheim to play in the 76 classic. They will play Butler in the first round, with the winner facing UCLA barring an upset. Other potential opponents in the tournament include West Virginia, Clemson, Texas A&M, Portland, and Long Beach State. Just don’t come to The Barn if you are looking for compelling basketball in November or December because you won’t find it.

Most feared Big Ten player?

Kalin Lucas. Every time I close my eyes in the days leading up to Michigan State I see a blur and Lucas making a lay up while every Gopher is at the other end of the court reaching for an oxygen mask.

Most feared Big Ten team?

Michigan State. It isn’t just Lucas that is just too fast for the Gophers to handle.

Predicted Big Ten finish and record?

The Gophers should go about 12 and 6 in the conference and finish fourth.

Manny Harris shoots the ball in the basketball game against Minnesota at Williams arena on March 7,2009. The Wolverines won the game 67-64.(ANNA BAKEMAN/DAILY)Manny Harris shoots over Damian Johnson

Last Words?

When Dylan asked me to write this, my first thought was that Minnesota and Michigan may be the next great rivalry in the Big Ten. For the last two decades the programs have paralleled each other, both good and bad. From great success in the late 1980s and early 1990s, scandal thereafter, despair in the early part of this decade, and resurgent programs with power coaches as we head to the next decade. Last year’s game at Williams Arena was what college basketball is supposed to be, and I can’t wait for some great games this season. Now if only I could forgive you all for Robert Traylor and Tommy Amaker’s clothing choices.

  • Eddie

    Minnesota’s front court size and now experience scares me. Even with raw talent on the front line last year they were a difficult match up for Beilein’s defensive schemes.

    Interesting comparison regarding the last 25 years of both programs.

  • Minnesota was a very good defensive team last year. With the athletes they brought in this year they could be very scary on the defensive side of the ball.

  • Am I still missing something though? Why is Minnesota being placed ahead of Michigan in preseason polls when we beat them TWICE last year? Neither team lost a whole lot and both teams added some depth with incoming freshmen. All things being equal, Minnesota does not scare me a lot (besides Westbrook), and thus MICH should finish ahead of them in the final standings. Minne shouldn’t have gotten in to the tourney ahead of PSU last year and that was proven w/ an early exit.

  • They did tie with us in the final standings…

  • JayRich

    I think they are ranked ahead of us because a lot of their guys last year were “potential” guys. Whereas, many of our players are looked upon as not having as high of ceilings (not my opinion). Plus if you look at their team…it looks like a basketball team. UM looks like 5 guards. D. Sims is 6’8 like I am 7’4. Just some thoughts……

  • AG2

    Can we talk about Minnesota some other time? I think I’ve had just about enough of Minnesota right now.

  • ToBlav

    AG2 – Two bits of good news. 1. We are done talking about Minny for a while. 2. The Tigers will never have to play in the pin-ball machine again.

  • But last night’s game still hurts. Sigh… One step closer to basketball season.

  • JRose5

    Hate to see your beloved Tigers fall, but aside from the Mets, they choked as bad as one team could…Up 2 games with 3 to play…they put themselves in bad position. I am not being critical, for I am a Cubs fan, I was jsut shocked to even see a “play-in” game! Anyhow, I do love Leyland as a manager though! Basketball season just gets closer and closer! Hope the in-home went great with TZ!!

  • Saying they choked is probably fair but the Twins also won 17 of their last 21 with 3 of the losses coming to the Tigers… Give them some credit too.

  • JayRich

    I hate Leyland as a coach…the dude is a Marlbaro smoking , alcohol dependent old bat. No wonder Cabrera thinks it’s ok to stay out late and get wasted before one of the most important games of the year

  • Bird

    Dylan, this “Around the Big Ten” is a very good series. I was telling my IU and MSU buddies about it — saying that it’s one of the best one-stop sources for team-by-team analysis that I’ve come across. They read it and one of them pointed out that it would be nice if there was an “Around the Big Ten ’09: Michigan” that followed the same format. I mean, I know that it would be redundant with a lot of content on this blog, but it would complete the cycle. I’d like to read it, too. Maybe you were planning it already.

  • JRose5

    Gotta agree, the Twins played their butts off…just hope they have something left for the Evil Empire!

  • Paul F.

    Well the Tigers loss to the Royals that’s where breakdown started and it’s sad that they can’t beat the worse team in baseball. I’ve been listening to them on the radio and it’s a shame they fall apart. Hat’s off to Rick Porcello what a great start. Shouldn’t of been a one game playoff to begin with.

  • Yup, they had their chances… As someone that went to 15ish Tigers games this summer, it definitely hurts. Porcello and Verlander (and probably Jackson too) should make a great core to a rotation for the Tigers in the future. They need help in a lot of other areas though, that’s for sure.