Gophers primed to climb in Big Ten

MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team came so close to winning a championship last season.

No, it wasn’t the NCAA title or even the Big Ten Conference title. But Tubby Smith’s Gophers advanced to the finals of the National Invitational Tournament before losing in the championship game to Stanford. Minnesota had to win four games in the 32-team NIT to advance that far, including a one-point victory over top-seeded Washington in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden.

Because of that postseason run – even if it was in the NIT – Minnesota enters the upcoming 2012-13 season with high expectations. Simply making the NCAA tournament won’t be enough for Smith’s squad, which is now hungry after getting a taste of success.

“We definitely have high expectations, especially the way last season ended,” said senior forward Trevor Mbakwe, who missed all but seven games last year with a torn ACL. “I think we believe that we can go far this year, make a run in the tournament.”

The Gophers return nearly their entire roster, aside from center Ralph Sampson III. They also get two players back from injury in Mbakwe and center Maurice Walker, who redshirted last year as he recovered from a knee injury.

With the 6-foot-10, 289-pound Walker healthy, Minnesota should have an inside presence it didn’t have a year ago. The return of Mbakwe should also help Minnesota on the glass, as he averaged 10.5 rebounds two years ago.

“The potential is out the gym with Trev back and with Mo healthy,” senior Rodney Williams said. “With those two back, especially, we’re going to be a real dominant team in the paint. I think that’s kind of what we were lacking last year at times.”

Add to that an improved Andre Hollins, who took over as the team’s point guard last year as a true freshman. Hollins got better as the season wore on and averaged 15.0 points in the postseason. Minnesota also returns Williams, a 6-7 forward who can jump out of the gym but still needs to work on his jump shot. Williams led the Gophers by averaging 12.2 points, tops on the team after Mbakwe tore his ACL.

Minnesota had high hopes entering last season, but Mbakwe’s injury put a damper on that. After going 12-1 in nonconference play, the Gophers opened the Big Ten with four straight losses before finishing 6-12 in the conference.

“I expected us to be competing for a Big Ten championship last year,” Smith said. “… It’s tough when you don’t have your full complement of players. If we can keep our guys healthy, I think we can compete for a Big Ten championship.”

The Gophers also have two freshmen in Charles Buggs and Wally Ellenson whom Smith said can contribute right away. But with plenty of depth and a lot of experience returning from last year’s NIT runner-up, playing time might be hard to come by for the two freshmen.

That wouldn’t be a bad thing for the Gophers, who are hoping to take some of the momentum from last year’s NIT run into this season but know that was a long time ago.

“I’d never ended the season like that since I’ve been here, so I can’t really say how tough it will be,” Williams said. “But I think after seeing how hard everybody worked this summer, I think it will carry over in a positive way.”

Minnesota won’t get its first test for nearly a month, when the Gophers host American University on Nov. 9 to open the season. The nonconference schedule includes some tough games, including matchups against Duke, Florida State and Southern Cal.

The Big Ten schedule begins Dec. 31 with a game at home against Michigan State. The Spartans advanced to the Sweet 16 a year ago, a goal the Gophers have for themselves this year.

Time will tell if this year’s team can accomplish what last year’s squad couldn’t.

“We can do a lot,” Smith said. “We can be very good, let’s put it that way. I think we can be a very competitive team in this league, something we hadn’t been last year.”

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