November 3, 2007

Golden Gopher Basketball Preview

I don't want to totally ignore the football season but it is time to replace the football frustration with basketball optimism. I attended the exhibition game with Minnesota State - Mankato last night and I am ready to give you a basketball preview...
Key Losses

NONE

Key Additions

Tubby - The biggest change to the program this offseason was the addition of Tubby Smith (DUH, I know!). This change coupled with the return of the entire relevant roster should make for a significant difference in the team's output. Personally I was never too harsh on Monson, but a coach of Tubby's stature is certain to be a better teacher and recruiter.

What I expect from Coach Smith is a team that will play better defense, run a more balanced offense and individual players that will be better prepared to make good decisions. An entire offseason with his roster makes me hopeful that the key players such as Tollackson, McKenzie and Coleman will be much better basketball players. I'll get more into them later but for now I just hope to see improvement in shot selection, defensive positioning and offensive teamwork.

Al Nolen (PG) - Most of the offseason Nolen was kind of an afterthought as an incoming freshman. But after last night I was very impressed and I think he will be a very good player over the next 4 years. He has good size, he was very fluid on the court, defended well and in the last few min of the game they ran a set play for Nolen to nail a 3 (and he did). Some freshmen see their playing time decrease as the competition increases and some play more as we get into the Big Ten season. I foresee Nolen getting more and more PT as the year goes on (in part because we are lacking at PG).

Blake Hoffarber (SG) - This was the freshman expected to make the most immediate impact. The reigning Minnesota Mr. Basketball and Espy Award winner had fans excited that he'll quickly be an outside threat that defenses will have to guard. This may be the case, but based on my limited opportunity to see him play I think he will struggle this season, especially when the speed and physicality of the Big Ten season picks up. There is a good chance that I could be wrong on this one, but my gut tells me that Blake will not contribute much in 2007-08.

Hoffarber moves well and given time his shot is good. But I think he'll need more time to adjust to the speed of the Big Ten game. Nolen will make this adjustment faster and that is often the key to freshman playing time. Both will be good down the road but I think Blake will take longer to adjust.

The Core

Spencer Tollackson (C) - A lot of people think the heart and soul of the gophers is guard Lawrence McKenzie, but I beg to differ. This team's success rides squarely on the shoulders of Tollackson. Don't get me wrong, we don't win without significant contributions from McKenzie and Coleman, but Tollackson is the leader of this team. Last year was rocky from the opening tip, but the worst basketball was seen when Tollackson was injured and unable to dress for games.

Tollackson isn't a great Big Ten center but he is very solid. He rebounds well, he defends well and he has a nice touch around the basket. His precense in the paint made things easier for Coleman and the backcourt players. When Tollackson was down for 7 Big Ten games the team lost by nearly 15 points per game and struggled to score points. After his return the team averaged 10 points more per game. The end results were the same but the team was much more competitive and competent really.

Ultimately, Tollackson isn't sexy or pretty but he is one of the better centers in the league. Any chances at postseason for this team rest on Tollackson.

Lawrence McKenzie (G) - here lies our most talented and athletic player. McKenzie can light up the scoreboard at any moment. The problem has been shot selection and his inability to involve his teammates in the offense. I don't completely blame McKenzie for all of this. The offense under Monson required McKenzie to carry an unfair burden, and then when he was creating shots the other 4 players were stagnant. Under Tubby I expect McKenzie and his teammates to be much smarter basketball players on the offensive end of the floor. His points should go up and his assists should also.

Defensively McKenzie looked great last night (albeit vs. a D2 school). When he wants to he can be a lock down defender. He was getting his hands on a lot of passes last night and was a part of several fast break points. I think that Tubby's system on Off and Def will suit McKenzie just fine and he will flourish in his senior season.

Dan Coleman (PF) - 4th highest returning scorer, 5th highest in blocked shots and 6th highest returning rebounder in the Big Ten. Coleman is also very talented and is part of the 3-piece key to this season. Tollackson is the heart/leader, McKenzie is the scoring guard and Coleman is steady force who can carry a team one night and do his part while others shoulder the load the next.

Coleman's problem has usually been his preference to play outside instead of using his 6'9" body in the paint where his athleticism creates mismatches and he is tough to guard. His ability to shoot from outside is clearly a strength but he needs to utilize his post skills as well to help this team.

A season where Coleman averages 15 ppg and 8 rpg is very realistic. Watching the offensive system employed by the gophers last night looks like it will give Coleman ample opportunity to use spacing away from the basket and beat his man on backcuts, post ups with an open lane and open shots when Tollackson is working down low. This could be a very productive season for Coleman.

Guys We Need to Contribute

Jamal Abu-Shamala (SG) - in full disclosure, I am not the biggest JAS fan in Gopher Nation. The guy is a great shooter but the rest of his game screams mid-major (or D2) to me. I'm probably harder on him than I should be, but I look forward to the day when our team's talent is further along than it currently is. Anyway, JAS is a necessary component to this team. He is a VERY good outside shooter and we will need his 43% shooting to keep the lane and the penetration lanes open for the Core (above). Jamal did not play in the exhibition opener because he cut his hand doing the dishes.

If JAS can improve slightly on his points and rebounds (8 and 4 would be nice) and most importantly cut down turnovers he will be just fine.

Jon Williams (C) - the backup center is also the 3rd string C (and 4th string for that matter). Williams is the only player on the bench who is over 6'7". If there is any foul trouble or injuries and because the starting frontcourt can't play 40 min each, Williams is the most important bench player we have. Fortunately I was pleasantly surprised last night. Mankato's big man was a D1 scholarship player out of high school so Williams performance isn't completely meaningless. Regardless of the competition, Williams looked MUCH more competent in the paint. A year ago he looked like he was tripping over his own feet, but the 2007-08 version was great on the boards and his court awareness involved more than trying to find the painted boxes on the floor. I was very encouraged and Williams will be a valuable backup.

Lawrence Westbrook (G) - another scoring PG, but smallish SG. Westbrook contributed very little last season and when he did play it was not very effective, his turnover total was higher than his rebounds and assists combined. But with that said I think he is going to be much improved and valuable this year. Last night he played significant minutes and even started the game. His defense was his greatest attribute, but he also chipped in 10 points, 3 reb and only had 1 turnover. I think we will all be happy with his production for most of this season.

I'd like to be Optimistic

Kevin Payton (G) - Payton is naturally a PG in a 6'5" frame. This could potentially create matchup problems for the opponent. The problem is I think this is a matchup problem for Minnesota as well. Payton's 2 biggest problems are his turnovers and his lack of foot speed. Guarding a D2 guard was a struggle for him last night. He seems to be in the right positions defensively but his footwork and footspeed were clearly lacking. Coming into the season I was hopeful for Payton, but I just don't see him being the player we had hoped he would be. For now he is starting but I see Nolen taking over the PG role in January.

Damian Johnson (SF) - Johnson is another guy I had high hopes for, but was disappointed in this exhibition contest. He is a tall, lean athlete with great shot blocking ability. But beyond that he also has slow feet and his offensive game leaves a lot to be desired. When he has a chance to come across to help, defensively, he can really alter shots with his vertical and long arms. But defending 1-on-1 is usually a bad matchup for us. He is a 6'7" sophomore with some potential but I am no longer holding my breath. He will have to help us at times and hopefully his rebounding and shot blocking will be the role that he grows into, but his contributions will not come on the offensive end or shutting down opposing wings with quickness.

The Offense

This got me very excited. These guys executed a motion offense that actually helped them to score baskets. Things were very spread out with 1 post in the middle. There was plenty of room for the post to operate and score if he desired and there were a ton of back cuts/screens that lead to layups. I didn't see very many set plays (other than a late 3 for Nolen) but that was probably by design since this will be the first game scouted I'm sure. I loved the motion, I loved the ball movement and I loved how the players seemed to be aware of what the rest of their teammates were doing. Big improvement.
The Defense

The pressure was turned up a few notches. There were times when guys were out of position and there were times when guys were just beat because of bad footwork (Payton). But there were also a LOT of tipped passes and steals for transition buckets. This group showed a little bit of determination and an ability to occasionally stop the other team (not just hope they missed). Rebounding was a huge issue for this defense a year ago. And while it was OK last night I still think that 10 rebounds to a D2 team is too many. Williams did a great job of ending possessions with a rebound, but Tollackson has to have more than 2 defensive rebounds (Coleman only had 3 as well). Overall this defense was much better than anything we saw a year ago, but there is room for improvement.

Predictions?

Well, I've said it on here before (and remember I am a huge optimist), but I really think this team will be talked about on Selection Sunday. At the very least they will be a bubble team that does not quite get in. This team will be much better than last year, how much is the question.

Non-conference? - I see only 3 games that are even losable (Iowa State, Florida State and UNLV). I think Iowa State will be a statement game since that game was kind of the very early defining moment for their season. 10-2 is very realistic as they head into the Big Ten season (11-1 isn't out of the question with this schedule).

Big Ten Season - a big part of my optimism surrounds the fact that the conference should be slightly down this year. Ohio State and Wisconsin lost a lot of very good players. Michigan was average last year and lost 4 starters. Iowa and Northwestern lost 3 starters from below average teams. I could go on, but the point is there is opportunity for a team like Minnesota to make a run at 4th or 5th in conference. For instance, Michigan State is considered a title contender and they lost to Grand Valley State tonight, also a D2 school. I think they need 8 wins in conference to get on the bubble. I see 7 and then 11 other games to get 1 or 2 more. It won't be easy but my prediction is 18-12, 1 win in the conference tourney and an NCAA berth.

2 comments:

Trevor said...

Great post, you are a little more optimistic than I am. I see us winning about 18 but going to the NIT. Not that I'll complain if we make the big dance haha. Great blog, keep it up!

From The Barn said...

Dan Coleman may be the most frustrating player I've seen in a long time. He just needs to get mean, throw an elbow into someone, show the frustration he must be feeling since leaving Boston College. With his body and skill set, Coleman could get a tryout with an NBA team. Instead he just coasts. Maybe Tubby will light a fire under him this year.