Gophers look to snap back from last season's slump
The preseason optimism flowing from the Minnesota basketball program sounds strikingly similar to last fall.
These Gophers are going to be coach Tubby Smith's deepest team since he was hired here. The chemistry is strong, and the atmosphere is family-like. They've got the athleticism to jump over and run by a lot of opponents. This is the best collection of outside shooters he's had at Minnesota.
Again, the fans at Williams Arena are waiting for proof. Last season, the Gophers were overcome by injuries and departures and slumped to a 17-14 finish, snapping Smith's personal 17-year run with 20-plus wins.
But power forward Trevor Mbakwe said he believes this bunch can legitimately challenge for a Big Ten championship.
''I don't know if a lot of teams actually believe that, but I actually believe this,'' Mbakwe said. ''I think we have good talent. We have all the pieces to make it a good season.''
Mbakwe is the most important piece.
''He's one of the best big men in our league. I have confidence just dumping the ball in there and letting him do his thing,'' said sophomore Maverick Ahanmisi.
Mbakwe was picked for the preseason All-Big Ten first team, a rugged yet athletic player with the ability to carry the team. The Gophers were too reliant on passing him the ball in the post, though, particularly when point guard Al Nolen got hurt and Blake Hoffarber was moved out of his shooting guard spot. Devoe Joseph's decision to transfer was also a big blow. The Gophers ranked next-to-last in the conference in 3-point shooting at 32.1 percent.
They're counting on more swishes this season. Smith said he believes this is his best of his five teams at Minnesota at outside shooting, with newcomers Joe Coleman, Andre Hollins, Oto Osenieks and Julian Welch joining the roster. This is one of the several deficiencies - including toughness and a sure-ball-handling, break-down-the-defense point guard - Smith and his staff have recruited specifically to address.
The 6-foot-4 Coleman brought a diverse skill set from local power Hopkins High School, just like his older brother, Dan, a few years ago and will see significant playing time at shooting guard. The other true freshman, Hollins, could start at point guard. He has competition from Ahanmisi and the junior college transfer Welch.
Sophomore Austin Hollins, no relation to Andre, is also in line to start in the backcourt, as much for his defense as anything. He led the team in steals last season. Sophomore Chip Armelin will be an energy booster off the bench.
The most unique addition to the rotation is Osenieks, a lanky native of Latvia who moved to Illinois and enrolled in high school there two years ago because he wanted to play American college basketball. After redshirting last season, the 6-foot-8 Osenieks should give the Gophers mismatches at either forward spot if he can transfer his outside shooting ability from practice to the games.
''It's pretty much whoever has the open shot takes the 3,'' Osenieks said. ''They're all confident, and we're looking good.''
He learned a lot from watching Hoffarber and his quick release. He has more than just emulation in mind, too.
''I want to break his 3-point records,'' Osenieks said. ''He was a great shooter.''
Hoffarber left Minnesota as the all-time leader in 3-pointers made and attempted - 279 for 682. That's 40.9 percent, the fourth-highest career mark among Gophers who tried a minimum of 80 3-pointers.
Though inexperience is a common denominator, there is clearly more flash - whether 3-point shooting or quickness to basket - to this group.
''Hopefully everybody stays healthy unlike last year. But we're going to be able to press more and get more up and down, and I think that's kind of the pace that Coach wants us to play at,'' Mbakwe said, adding this for emphasis: ''Our guards can dunk between their legs.''
No player on the roster is more athletic than 6-foot-7 forward Rodney Williams, whose highlight-reel slams have been overshadowed by poor mechanics and an often-timid approach on offense. Smith challenged him to play tougher this season, and the coaches have been working with him on his jump-shot form.
Ralph Sampson III, the only other senior on the roster beside Mbakwe, is coming off his best season, averaging 10.2 points per game behind a reliable mid-range jumper. But he's another guy the Gophers need to be more tenacious, using his 6-foot-11 frame to finish around the basket instead of settling for shots at the top of the key. Elliott Eliason, a 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman, and Maurice Walker, a 6-foot-10 sophomore coming off major knee surgery, will be the backups in the paint.
Smith said he examined the offense ''all summer long'' with his staff and is still committed to his familiar high-post, motion system. Aggressive defense, specifically full-court pressure to create turnovers, is also on the agenda.
Smith said he would ''be a fool'' if he considered this an NCAA-tournament-or-bust season. With Mbakwe and Sampson in their last year, though, the 2011-12 season has an urgent feel to it.
''The last couple years have been kind of letdowns for them,'' Coleman said. ''Us younger guys and guys who've been here a couple years, we don't want to let that happen. We don't want our seniors to go out down and everything. We want to make sure we're able to step up and help the team out.''
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