For regular readers wondering if we're ever going to talk about Northwestern basketball; fear not. The 'Cats begin the season tonight with an exhibition game against Robert Morris, and we'll have coverage of that along with plenty of analysis of the upcoming season. But until then, the Big Ten previews roll on with Minnesota.
Like several other Big Ten teams, Minnesota underachieved in non-conference play, as they fell out of the top 25 after a 3 game losing streak to Portland, Texas A&M, and Miami (FL). In Big Ten play, they were up and down all season, as upsets of Ohio State and Wisconsin were cancelled out by losses to Indiana and Michigan. And after a second loss to Michigan in early March (this one an 83-55 beat down), they were 17-12 (8-9) and very much on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble. But Tubby Smith's team salvaged their season in the conference tournament, upsetting Michigan State and Purdue to sneak into the tournament as an #11 seed, where they lost in the first round to Xavier.
Despite the late NCAA charge, the overall body work was disappointing, as many expected the Gophers to be a top-tier Big Ten team. The biggest problems came off the court, as highly touted newcomers Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe never played a game due to legal troubles, and starting point guard Al Nolen had to sit out the second half of the season after being declared academically ineligible (Jan Gangelhoff (RIP) is not walking through that door).
Players not returning
Minnesota loses several rotation guys, including combo guard Lawrence Westbrook, who averaged nearly 13 points per game as a senior. Westbrook was a polarizing figure among Gopher fans; he was certainly a good shooter (47% overall, 41% from three), but he wasn't a great ball-handler or distributor (only 2.2 assists per game to go along with 2.2 turnovers per game) and he had a tendency to go into chucker mode in crunch time. Despite his flaws, Westbrook was the go-to guy for Tubby Smith at the end of games, and someone will need to step into that role.
The Gophers also lose forward Damian Johnson, who was among the conference's leaders in steals and blocked shots. While Johnson's defense will be missed, he wasn't a great offensive player and there are plenty of guys ready to step in on the wing, so this shouldn't be too big of a loss. His absence may hurt more off the court, where he was a respected senior leader.
Minnesota also lost reserves Paul Carter and Justin Cobbs to transfer (Carter went to UIC to be at home with his sister while she battles cancer, and Cobbs went to Cal for more playing time), and the aforementioned Royce White left before ever playing a game, joining Fred Hoiberg's Big Ten refugee camp at Iowa State along with Michigan State cast-off Chris Allen.
Despite the loss of Westbrook, the Gophers still return three solid guards who complement each other well: senior Al Nolen, Devoe Joseph, and Blake Hoffarber. Nolen is the best perimeter defender in the Big Ten and was an integral part of the Gopher's full court pressure before his academic suspension. He's also a solid ball-handler and distributor, but isn't much of an offensive threat (37% from the field and often reluctant to take open perimeter jumpers). Joseph stepped into the line-up in Nolen's absence last year and developed into a solid combo guard who can both run the offense and score the ball. I would expect him to emerge as the go-to guy for Minnesota in crunch time. Hoffarber, back for his senior year and the continued lame David Hasselhoff references from commentators, is the best pure shooter in Big Ten, as he shot a ridiculous 47% from three point range while attempting nearly 6 threes per game last season. It looks like Nolen and Hoffarber will start while Joseph will come off the bench, but all 3 should see about 25 minutes a night.
Looking at the Minnesota front line, what really jumps out is their size and athleticism. Juniors Ralph Sampson III (6'11", 240) and Colton Iverson (6'10", 260) return at center; both can rebound, block shots, and provide some offense in the paint. JUCO transfer Trevor Mbakwe (6'8", 240), who sat out all of last season awaiting trial on felony assault charges (that have since been dropped), is finally eligible, and he's reportedly a fantastic athlete who will be one of the conference's best rebounders. Joining them is sophomore Rodney Williams, a high-flying wing who is projected as a lottery pick in next year's NBA draft. He's still pretty raw and didn't get much playing time last season, but his minutes figure to go up this year as his offensive game is supposed to be markedly improved. Throw in two mores behemoths in freshmen Mo Walker (6'10", 290) and Elliott Eliason (6'11", 240), and you've got the biggest and most athleitc group of forwards in the league. There are certainly questions about how much scoring these guys can do (none have ever averaged double figures per game in the Big Ten), but there's no doubt about the rebounding, defense and shot blocking. It's going to be very tough to score inside on Minnesota this season.
When Tubby Smith was hired in 2007, there were happy faces in Gopher-land, and fans expected him to turn things around quickly in the wake of the disastrous Dan Monson era. Tubby has certainly been an upgrade over Monson, taking the Gophers to the NCAAs the past two seasons, but both those teams finished .500 in the Big Ten, snuck in on Selection Sunday and lost in the first round. In his fourth season, the hope is that Minnesota can take another leap forward, be one of the better teams in the Big Ten, and make some noise in the tournament. There is certainly a lot of talent on this team, particularly on the defensive end, but the Gophers may struggle at times on offense, and the top of the Big Ten is loaded; Minnesota could improve a lot and still finish 6th in the conference like they did last year. They will probably dominate a soft non-conference schedule like last year (when they won their non-conference home games by an average of 33 points), and they will prove too athletic for the bottom tier Big Ten teams to handle, but I don't think their offense matches up with the conference's best. I wouldn't be shocked if they make the jump up to 3rd or 4th, and it's hard to see them finishing worse than 6th, but the rest of the league is just too good for me to move them up.
SoP Prediction: 6th in the Big Ten, #6-#10 seed in the NCAAs