Around the Big Ten 2010-11: Minnesota

Dylan Burkhardt

This is the first installment of our Around the Big Ten previews where we cover each Big Ten team with the help of various bloggers and beat writers around the conference. This year we begin with Minnesota, courtesy of Beyond having the most players on the John Wooden Award nominee list (10 of 50), the Big Ten also has some of the best team specific basketball blogs. Luckily From The Barn is no exception. Jonathan Foster does a great job and also provided over 2,500 words of Gopher analysis and speculation for our enjoyment.


Minnesota had a roller coaster of a season last year and lost two of their top players but the roster still seems to have plenty of talent. What are the expectations in Minnesota at this point?

Against our collective better judgment, expectations are about as high as last year in the Twin Cities. Everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong last year. If the Gophers are unable to get to the final 32 of the NCAA tournament (calling it the second round would be pretty meaningless now, huh?) the season would be pretty disappointing.

Off court drama, on court squabbles, injuries, academic suspensions, and heart breaking loss after heart breaking loss nearly ruined Minnesota’s season, but they still managed to beat every team ahead of them in the Big Ten standings by the end of the year.

The Gophers should have one of the better starting line-ups in the Big Ten. Devoe Joseph emerged as a real leader and scoring threat during the Big Ten tournament. Rodney Williams should be much better at using his freakish athletic ability for good instead of evil. Al Nolen should be eligible. Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson should still cause all sorts of match-up problems. Throw in Trevor Mbakwe who will finally play, and there will be a plethora of very large individuals at Tubby Smith’s disposal.

Damian Johnson and Paul Carter are two departed Gophers

There was plenty of roster action in the Twin Cities this summer – breakdown the inbound, outbound, and return traffic for us. Who should we expect to be a major contributor?

It was not a good summer to try to take a few mind cleansing months away from the blog. The Gophers have experienced as much roster turnover as any Big Ten team, and more than most teams in the country.

Damian Johnson and Lawrence Westbrook graduated, and are now playing overseas. The departure of Johnson will be a big hole to fill. He could wreak havoc on the defensive end, equally skilled at stealing the ball and blocking shots. Westbrook’s departure was the object of much debate. He was the team’s leading scorer, the big shot taker, and easily the most competitive player on the court. He was also reckless at times, occasionally lazy on the defensive end, and not particularly accountable for his actions. He was hardly the perfect senior captain, leading some to argue that in terms of team success, there may be a bit of addition by his subtraction. I’m not prepared to go that far. There will be times when the Gophers need a fearless and acrobatic drive for a basket, and I’m not sure who will fill his shoes in that regard. However, I do expect the team to function much better as a team, with a lot less finger pointing.

Paul Carter left the Gophers to be closer to his family in Chicago while his sister undergoes bone cancer treatment. The last I heard, she was expected to have her leg amputated, and that was a best case scenario. Obviously, there are no hard feelings toward Carter. He was the heart and soul of the team and its spiritual leader. He is doing exactly what a leader should do. I only wish we all could have given him the proper send off he deserves.

Justin Cobbs, a freshman point guard, transferred back home to California. He seemed to be frustrated most of the year with playing time, his teammates, himself, and really everything else. He just never seemed to fit in, and will hopefully be much happier closer to home. His absence on the court will make the back-up point guard situation interesting to say the least, with no obvious replacement.

Royce White left for Iowa State, even though he never really arrived.

I might not be able to identify the players without a program during the first few games this season. There will be nine new Gophers on the court this season.

Trevor Mbakwe isn’t really new, but will finally get to play after a year long investigation into a crime he didn’t commit finally revealed that the Miami District Attorney’s office is skilled at badgering witnesses and corruption, but not at solving crimes. He should start at power forward, with power being the operative word. The Gophers haven’t had a true power forward in years, and Mbakwe will give the Gophers tenacious rebounding and intimidating defense around the basket. Today’s scary thought: Mbakwe has a better vertical than Rodney Williams, by two inches, and outweighs him by 40 pounds.

And now for the freshman in alphabetical order, because there are just so many of them:

Maverick Ahanmisi was recruited to play at Boise State last year but decided to go the prep-school route for the year. He is considered to be an emergency recruit after Cory Joseph decided to go to Texas. Reviews from those who have seen him play have not been good, and he doesn’t seem to be Big Ten ready. There was hope that he would be Al Nolen’s back-up this year at point guard, but that may not be entirely realistic. Only time will tell.

Chip Armelin has the potential to be a real diamond in the rough. The 6’3” guard from Sulpher, Louisiana averaged better than 23 points and 9 rebounds last season, and was also an All-State wide receiver in his first and only season of high school football. He couldn’t decide whether he wanted to play football or basketball in college, and in the process scared away most suitors in both basketball and football. There has been talk that he could be the best of the Gopher freshman. At worst he’ll be an athletic freak who needs time to refine his basketball skills.

Elliat Eliason is the two time player of the year in Nebraska. He is fundamentally sound, extremely intelligent, and from middle of nowhere Nebraska, which means he will probably red-shirt this year. That extra year will give him time bulk up and be ready for the increased level of competition.

Chris Halvorson is a transfer from Valparaiso who will eventually be a walk-on after sitting out a year. At 6’9” he’ll give the Gophers another big body in practice, and maybe something more in a few years.

Austin Hollins is the freshman I am most excited about. His father is Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, so he shouldn’t be as prone to freshman mistakes. He is a long 6’4” with excellent shooting range, can put the ball on the floor, and loves to rebound. Most importantly though is his potential to be the leader on court
that has been missing in recent years.

Oto Oseniks was supposed to be Blake Hoffarber’s replacement, but that will have to wait at least a year. He is enrolled at the University of Minnesota but is not yet cleared to play as the NCAA tries to make sense of his transcript, which includes a few years of high school in Latvia and another in prep-school in the states. Hopefully he’ll be available to play next year after a year in good academic standing.

Erik Stark will continue the long tradition of walk-ons from Minnesota’s Iron Range. He was a solid high school point guard and may be able to contribute in a few years.

Maurice Walker holds the distinct honor of being the largest freshman in the Big Ten. He is 6’10” and around 300 pounds, but surprisingly light on his feet. He had double-doubles in two games during Minnesota’s fall Canadian tour. ESPN ranks him as the #9 center in the class of 2010, and he should be able to contribute right away. However, it isn’t clear how much playing time he will actually see with so much size ahead of him on the depth chart.

 nolen_thumb[1]cst Gophers Hoops 2
Al Nolen and Trevor Mbakwe will be difference makers on the defensive end

Minnesota had just the 7th best defense  on a per possession basis in the Big Ten last year compared to the 4th best offense despite having arguably the best defender in the conference in Damian Johnson. With Johnson gone, how can Minnesota improve on the defensive side of the ball?

Minnesota’s defense the last two seasons was pretty simple. Al Nolen would take care of the point guard, and Damian Johnson would take care of the rest. The Gophers were one of the best defending teams in the country through the first half of the 2009-2010 season, but Nolen was declared academically ineligible for second semester, and the defense tanked. The Gophers couldn’t trap anymore because they didn’t have anyone that could stay in front of opposing point guards. Without trapping there were fewer turnovers, and with fewer turnovers there were just too many defensive possessions for the Gophers to handle.

With Nolen returning this year, hopefully for the entire season, Minnesota’s defensive problems should largely take of themselves. The trap should be back in a big way as Trevor Mbakwe is long and fast enough to trap in the corners but will still have enough time to get under the basket to defend. Rodney Williams will also have a year of Tubby Smith’s system under his belt, which bodes well with his length and leaping ability.

The real key to the defense may ultimately be defensive rebounding. Last year the Gophers ranked #143 in the country in limiting opponent offensive rebounds. All too often the Gophers would try to block shots and in the process take themselves out of good rebounding position. Damian Johnson was the chief perpetrator. Trevor Mbakwe could lead the Big Ten in rebounding, and should limit the second chances of the opponents. Maurice Walker, at least when he is on the floor, is just so wide that there won’t be enough room around the basket for easy second chances.

Who are the likely starters for the Gophers this year? Tubby Smith has leaned heavily on his bench since he arrived at Minnesota, will we see this again this year?

Despite the roster turnover, there will still be many familiar faces who will get the majority of the playing time, but starters won’t necessarily get the most minutes. Ralph Sampson III should start at center. Colton Iverson will start at what can best be described as second center for the first few games, but Trevor Mbakwe will eventually slide in to start at power forward. Blake Hoffarber will start at small forward/ third guard, but Rodney Williams will get plenty of minutes against bigger and more athletic teams. Devoe Joseph should start at shooting guard, especially after his break out performances filling in for then suspended Al Nolen. Al Nolen will probably start at point guard. However, depending on Tubby’s feelings about Nolen, it is entirely possible that Nolen will come off the bench. In that case, Joseph will start at point guard and Hoffarber will start at shooting guard.

What I am really trying to say is that there are a lot of moving pieces in the starting line-up, but the top seven of the rotation will get the vast majority of the minutes, with only Walker, Armelin, and Hollins with much of an opportunity for meaningful playing time. The days of a ten deep rotation should be on hiatus for at least this year.

Devoe Joseph came into his own during the later half of Big Ten play

Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson took a lot of shots in Minnesota’s offense which means there will be plenty of shots available this year. What player will benefit most from an expanded role in the offense?

Add Devoe Joseph to the list of candidates for the break out player of the year in the Big Ten. Just before the Indiana road game last year it became obvious that Al Nolen would not be finishing the season with the team. In the Big Ten games before that Indiana game, Joseph maxed out at 12 points in 19 minutes at Iowa. From the Indiana game on, he played 26 minutes or more in every game except two, blow out wins at home against Indiana and against Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament. In the final 12 games of the season, he scored nine or more points in all but two games, which is pretty impressive considering that he average only 9.4 points throughout the season. Joseph showed that he can be a consistent double digit scorer at the end of last season, and there is no reason he can’t continue last year’s success.

What are the highlights of Minnesota’s schedule? Any early litmus tests this year? 

The Gophers have the toughest non-conference schedule in the Big Ten in terms of last season’s final RPI rankings. The Gophers face plenty of solid mid-majors like Wofford, Siena, Cornell, and Akron. No real big names show up on the schedule until the Puerto Rico tip-off where they will face some combination of Western Kentucky, Nebraska, Hofstra, Davidson, Vanderbilt, North Carolina, and West Virginia. Coming back from San Juan with at least one win over Vanderbilt, North Carolina, or West Virginia will put the Gophers in excellent position to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the third straight season. A rough trip to the tropics could doom the season, especially with the strength of the Big Ten this season.

Record prediction? Conference and overall.

I see a conference record of 12-6 and an overall record of 26-7. However, after the last two seasons,
I take no responsibility for my win predictions for the two Michigan games, and I’m not exactly looking forward to those two games either.

Fear the Spartans: Durrell Summers and Kalin Lucas

Most feared player in the conference?

Kalin Lucas, at some point, will hit a shot and absolutely ruin some poor team’s season. I just hope it isn’t the Gophers.

Most improved player?

Durrell Summers seems poised to absolutely explode. If he isn’t one of the conference scoring leaders I’ll be shocked. Drew Crawford and Maurice Creek should also have special seasons.

Projected conference champs?

If Robbie Hummel comes back healthy and ready, Purdue might be impossible to beat. Michigan State will also be in contention until the very end.

450px-Welsh-Ryan_Arena[1]Toughest place to play in the Big Ten?

I might be taking a slightly different angle on this. I could tell you the toughest place to win, which would have to come down to some combination of Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State, Purdue, and Ohio State. You’ll notice that those are also the best teams in the Big Ten the last several years, and they would also be the most difficult teams to play on a neutral court. I wouldn’t know how to begin to separate whether it is tough to beat those teams on the road because they are tough, or they are a tough place to play. What I do know if that the Northwestern Wildcat’s always seem to knock off one or more of the best team’s in the conference at Welsh-Ryan Arena, and are hardly intimidating when they play on the road. Even though Welsh-Ryan is tiny, rarely full (with Wildcat fans at least) and sort of looks run down, at least on TV, strange and scary things happen there far too often for any team to want to play there.

Do you think your team wins their Big Ten/ACC challenge game [vs. Virginia]?

They better.

  • georgeesq.

    26-7? Really?

  • Mith

    They lost all those guys and they still expect to be 12-6 in conference. Wow.

  • Minnesota may have some talent and Tubby Smith is a very popular name in college coaching and he may very well beat UM this year, but I would take Beilein over Tubby every time.

    Beilein is head over heels better with on the floor coaching and game management than Tubby. Tubby has shown he can get talent at UK and Sota, but has had a hard time developing and keeping players; as well as, difficulty in out coaching other Big Ten coaches.

  • 12-6 in the conference might be a bit optimistic, but consider the following:

    The Gophers were 9-9 last year.
    They lost twice to a bad (sorry had to say it) Michigan team. Unless Manny and Mr. Sims are coming back that won’t happen this year. So add two wins to last year’s total to get to 11-7. Then throw in overtime road losses last year to Indiana and Northwestern,and one point home loss to Michigan State and Purdue, and the Gophers weren’t far off from battling for the Big Ten title. Mr. Pomeroy agrees that the Gophers were much better than the record indicated.

  • Kevin has rodney williams as the number 10 pick in the mock draft already.

  • aMaized
  • JB

    does this stauskas offer suggest dom pointer is heading to wvu? i believe one scholarship is going to a guard.

  • JB

    and one scholarship to a big

  • aMaized
  • fresh

    the stauskas offer is pretty interesting ……….its even more interesting if we actually sign pointer but this offer at this time is kinda weird……..idk what that says about pointer

  • Kenny

    If Horford redshirt, there is no need for a big in 2012. Stauskas is a big guard, perfect for replacing Novak, and who knows how much GRob III is going to grow. In Beilein’s system, Stauskas, GRob and Pointer can all play 4.

  • georgeesq.

    I think that the Stauskas offer stands on its own merits. The kid can play and is very skiilled with a good three point shot and good size. He’s someone Beilein wants, whether he gets Pointer or not.

  • wayman britt

    Interesting on Stauskas, I wish we knew more about what is going on. I hope this has nothing to do with Pointer. I beleive there is a big difference in talent level between Pointer and Stauskas.

  • Bluebufoon

    I can’t believe it took this long for Michigan to offer Stauskas. I hope U-M didn’t wait too long to offer the kid but I’m thrilled he was finally offered. Sounds like U-M is going with two wings with the last two scholarships and Amir Williams recruitment might affect someone status on the current roster.

  • The Stauskas offer means, I think, that Coach feels he can win with him and doesn’t count birds in the bush. It stands on its own, without any impact on other offers.

  • 16

    I think 12-6 is VERY optimistic. Basically, the Gophers have the same thinking that we did last year: all the talent comes back from the year before, so all the bad losses should be erased.

    Alas, we saw a huge decline in victories. While the Gophers may very well go 12-6 (a great Big Ten Tournament run last year sure makes me think that could happen), they might also go 6-12. You never know with a team of young players.

  • georgeesq.

    I think the key for Minny is Mbwakwe. Even though they have Sampson and Iverson, both of those guys played pretty soft. Big, but without much skill. If Mbwakwe can be a force inside, they have enough talent at the other spots to be pretty good, not 26-7 good, IMO, but very good.

  • The Gophers lose several guys but I think they might have a better mix if that makes sense. Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams were two guys that they might have expected a little too much from last year but should both be impact players with their athleticism.

  • Section13Row15

    I still stand by my original inclination that Minnesota is garbage. I can’t remember the last time they beat us, maybe 3 seasons ago? They didn’t deserve the NCAA tournament over Illinois despite their late run in the Big 10 tourney. Hofharber is a good shooter but beyond that, no one on that team scares me. 26-7 is a complete joke. They will hover around 20 wins this year as usual.

  • Kenny

    I would also say that 26-7 is overly optimistic, it could happen if everything goes their way.

  • Beating Illinois on the road sorta kills any argument that Illinois deserved to be in over the Gophers, doesn’t it now.

  • And if a 20 win season is garbage, I’d hate to know what you think of your own team.

  • Section13Row15

    Did Illinois beat Minnesota on the road or was it just the one game last year? I get your point, I’m just basing my opinion on what I’ve seen from having U-M season tickets the last 6 years. Minnesota has not been impressive and Mich isn’t even that good.

  • One game, Gophers won on the road. The Gophers have had match-up problems with Manny and Sims. Nothing more, nothing les.

    Seems odd to judge the Gophers by their play against one team when they beat everyone above them in the Big Ten standings.

  • That Guy

    If the Gophers go 26-7 then the Big Ten is really going to be absurd. Ohio St, MSU, Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin all have to feel like they have realistic chances of finishing that well. Of those teams Minnesota would be my last pick to finish that high. Just my opinion, not saying it won’t happen.

  • Section13Row15

    It’s really not that odd when you’re sitting in the stands watching Minnesota getting blown out by Michigan who is average. I do like the fact Minne played their way into the tournament whereas Illinois played their way out.

  • So the wins over Butler, MSU, PU on neutral courts and home wins against OSU (with Turner) and Wisconsin (with Leuer) somehow don’t count due to losses against Michigan? Fine.

  • Section13Row15

    Didn’t mean to offend you, I just see Minnesota in the same tier as Michigan which is right around .500 or a little less in the Big 10 standings.if you’re going to look at the wins Minne had, take a look at some of last year’s losses too. Indiana, Michigan twice, etc. MSU, Purdue, OSU, Illinois, and Wisconsin will all be better than Minne this season.I see 9 or 10 big ten wins maybe. 26 wins is hard to get to unless you have 16 cupcakes scheduled prior to the conference sleight, which Minne usually does.

  • Kenny

    Minnesota deserved to be in the tournament because of its run in the BTT. But as “That Guy” pointed out, Dylan might need to adjust his 26-7 prediction once finishes his review of other top teams in the conference.

  • 16

    What did Dylan say our record would be last season? If Minnesota finishes 26-7, they will probably be top 20 and top two or three in the Big Ten. I feel like MSU, Purdue, Ohio State, and Wisconsin will all finish ahead of them. If they do finish around 26-7 with the above teams ahead of them, we are going to have a dynamite conference. And we will likely be around 10-22 like two years ago, fighting for the last spot in the Big Ten with PSU and Iowa.

    Hmm… well I guess that makes sense. There’s no reason for anybody to expect us to finish above 9th in the conference again.

  • Just for the record… The prediction was from From The Barn… I just do the interviews and tally everything.

    You can see last year… that many people overestimated.

  • Section13Row15

    Did anyone notice that FromTheBarn was the worst predictor last year besides Penn State’s blogger (and I must admit, I thought PSU would be better after winning the NIT and returning Battle)? All I ask is that you be realistic about your program. No one on this site is going to say Michigan is going to go 12-6. 9-9 would be a stretch for us. I understand optimism but I would respect FromTheBarn more if he under predicted his team’s wins rather than throw out 26-7 as an overall record. I’ll be tuning into a lot of Minnesota games this year. I can’t wait.

  • BlueRev

    It might be nice to enter a season with everyone figuring they’ll just beat us–and we’ll see what happens. Funny they assume they’ll have addition by deletion while we apparently we won’t?… tho we add a half-dozen decent new guys that figure to play as much as anyone’s else’s newbies with the departure of stars Sims and Harris.
    I wouldn’t be surprised to see MN finish ahead of UM, nor would I be surprised to see the opposite. I do think we have more upside for the future tho, but next year I’ll see w split and MN is a game or two better.

  • Kenny

    My apology to Dylan on my previous remark.

  • Trevor

    Paul Carter sounds like a really amazing kid. Best wishes to his sister.