Gophers deeper and more athletic, so what's next?

Gophers deeper and more athletic, so what's next?

Published Oct. 29, 2009 5:37 p.m. ET


MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- In his third season at Minnesota, Tubby Smith will truly be coaching his team.

Only four players remain on the roster who were recruited by the previous staff. For the second straight year, Smith has brought a nationally lauded group of newcomers to the Gophers, ranked No. 25 in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll released Thursday.

The depth and athleticism that Smith has always wanted to build his running, pressing squads has steadily improved since he took over in 2007.

After a 20-14 finish and an NIT appearance in his first year and a 22-11 record and an NCAA tournament invitation last season, Minnesota will be expected to do better than one-and-done.

"We've tasted postseason play at the NCAA level. Now what? What do we have to do to go deeper into the tournament?" Smith said.

These Gophers have another opportunity to develop confidence and collect victories before Big Ten play begins, thanks to another relatively soft non-conference schedule except for games against Butler on Thanksgiving night, and possibly UCLA and other big-time teams if the brackets line up in a holiday tournament.

Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson are the only ones left from Dan Monson's last team. Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber were recruited by him, but have only played for Smith.

After an influx of fresh talent last fall (including Ralph Sampson, Colton Iverson, Devoe Joseph and Paul Carter), another impressive class has come to Minnesota (featuring Royce White, Rodney Williams, Justin Cobbs and Trevor Mbakwe).

There is a glut of perimeter players and the lineup could look a number of different ways. In Mbakwe's case, it isn't all about the basketball, either.

Mbakwe, a junior transfer, faces a December trial date for a felony charge stemming from an alleged attack on a woman earlier this year. Athletics director Joel Maturi has not yet cleared Mbakwe to play, though he can practice.

If his off-the-court issue doesn't intercede, Mbakwe will give Smith a pure power forward with experience and strength inside for a team that was beat up at times by bigger foes like Michigan State and Texas. Williams is raw, but he might be the highest jumper on the team.

There are several other players who will be in the spotlight this season:

-- Nolen. He struggled down the stretch as the starting point guard, and Smith has urged the junior to be a better leader.

"Take care of the basketball, pushing and transition," Smith said. "Get a little bit more innovative and creative in transition. I think that's something we have to have from Al."

-- Hoffarber. His 3-point percentage dropped from 42.7 as a freshman to 34.1 last season on a team that lacked outside shooters, so he worked over the summer on driving to the basket more and diversifying his game.

"People were flying out at me last year on my 3-point shot," Hoffarber said. "I was looking at film and realizing what they were doing and how they were guarding me."

-- Sampson. He struggled with confidence and consistency as a freshman, but the 6-foot-11 son of the former NBA star bulked up and is on track to take a significant step in his development.

As for his learning stage? "I feel it's over for me now," Sampson said.