Coleman, Walker taking the next steps

MINNEAPOLIS — The regular-season starts Friday for the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team. After two exhibition games, what do we know about Tubby Smith’s 2012-13 squad?

Not a ton, really. It’s always hard to gauge a team, regardless of the sport, after playing games that don’t count in the standings. The Gophers have now easily taken care of Minnesota State and Southwest Baptist and scored a total of 167 points in a pair of exhibition games at Williams Arena as they gear up for the regular-season opener this Friday against American.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from these two preseason games is that sophomore guard Joe Coleman has taken a step forward since his freshman year. Coleman was Minnesota’s leading scorer in each of the two exhibition games, scoring 21 against Minnesota State and 15 on Monday against Southwest Baptist. Coleman looks like a much more confident player and has been aggressive in going to the basket, a skill his game lacked a bit last year.

“We all knew that Joe’s a scorer,” senior forward Rodney Williams said. “It was just a matter of time when he really felt comfortable.”

Gophers fans got a chance to see forward-center Maurice Walker in these two preseason games. Walker was sidelined all of last season as he recovered from a knee injury suffered during his freshman year. What Walker brings to the court is a big body that the Gophers didn’t have last year. At 6-10, 290 pounds, he is a force in the paint — and he also moves surprisingly well for a player his size. In the rough-and-tumble Big Ten, Minnesota will need Walker to give that inside presence against some of the bigger centers in the conference. He played just 19 combined minutes in the two games but scored 12 points and had a pair of blocks to offer some optimism about what he can bring to the floor.

The biggest question mark entering this season is how senior forward Trevor Mbakwe will look after recovering from a torn ACL he suffered early last season. The Gophers are hoping Mbakwe can return to his old form and play near the level he did as a junior when he led the Big Ten in rebounding and led Minnesota in scoring.

But in these two exhibition games, we haven’t seen that explosiveness from Mbakwe just yet. He still appears a bit hesitant on his surgically repaired knee. That comfort level may take a while to return after such a major injury.

“I hope he reaches his full potential,” Smith said of Mbakwe. “I thought it was just really sad that he (got hurt) last year because I thought he’d be a first-round draft pick. … If he does those things that he did previously, he’ll be fine. He doesn’t have to do anything else, just do what he did, play his best and he’ll be fine.” 

Along with Mbakwe, the Gophers will need another one of the seniors, Williams, to elevate his game another notch. Williams is easily the most athletic player on Minnesota’s roster and led the team in scoring (12.2 points per game) and rebounding (5.6 rebounds per game) in Mbakwe’s absence last year. The potential is there for Williams to put up even bigger numbers.

One thing is certain about the Gophers this year: the expectations are high. Minnesota advanced to the NIT Championship game last year without Mbakwe, and the Gophers return all but one player from that team. With a healthy Mbakwe and a more experienced roster, there’s no reason Minnesota shouldn’t be an NCAA Tournament team this year.

Mbakwe certainly believes they will be. He posted on Twitter that he’d repay his scholarship if the Gophers aren’t a tournament team this year. Whether he was joking (he later backtracked a bit), it was a sign of his confidence in his teammates and what they are capable of together.

“That’s our goal. We don’t want to just settle for going to the NCAA Tournament. We want to go further,” Mbakwe said. “We have the talent and depth to do it this year. Barring injuries and any unfortunate accidents, I think we definitely can make a run this year with this team.”

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