I have already put out a Gopher Preview, but this where I am going to insert the Gophers. Anyway, I think the Gophers are the sleeper team in the Big Ten this year. 2 primary factors play into this theory (the 3rd factor is my maroon beer as I wear my gold glasses)...
- Tubby Smith - 14 year run of 20 win season. 20 wins is not likely to happen but he'll get close and get to the tourney.
- Experienced roster returning that actually has some talent.
PG - Al Nolen (pictured right) - Nolen may not be the starter for game 1, but by the time the Big Ten season rolls around I anticipate he'll be starting at PG to let McKenzie do more scoring. Nolen is stronger, quicker and a better shooter than I was anticipating. I think that what was supposed to be our biggest hole will be solidified by Nolen and backup Westbrook.
SG - Lawrence McKenzie - the most talented player on the team and 2nd team All-Big Ten (preseason). Mckenzie came back to Minnesota after jumping to play at Oklahoma. The 5th year senior looks primed to carry the scoring load and lead this team back to the NCAA Tournament.
SF - Jamal Abu-Shamal - Here is our weak spot. I am not a fan of Abu-Shamala, but to his credit the wallk-on has carved out a nice spot in the lineup and does have skills that contribute. JAS was named by Rivals as the best shooter in the Big Ten and the kid does a lot of little things to help the Gophers. Unfortunately he is lacking foot speed, can't create his own shot and struggles to guard quicker players. Hopefully this Tubby offense can find opportunities for him to stretch the defense.
PF - Dan Coleman - Coleman pairs with Tollackson to be one of the best frontcourts in the league. Coleman initially went to Boston College before returning home to Minnesota. The PF averaged 14.2 ppg and 6 rpg last season. He has added some muscle and will look to increase his consistency. Coleman has the ability to beat you in the post and take you outside and hit the 3. His size and versatility make him hard to guard and he will have to gameplanned for.
C - Spencer Tollackson - maybe the best big man in the conference that you've never heard of. Tollackson is a very effective (but not dominant) center in the Big Ten. He defends well, he rebounds well, he can score with post moves or using his nice touch around the rim. His value to the team was realized last year when the Gophers went completely into the tank when Tollackson missed 8 games due to injury.
Key Bench - Lawrence Westbrook - the guard who averaged 40 ppg (or something like that) in high school struggled last year but has been very consistent in the gophers 2 exhibition games, giving the team some depth at the guard position. If he can keep turnovers down, he'll see a lot of playing time.
Key Bench - Jon Willaims - 6'9" center, lacks offensive skills but rebounds and defends very well. Won't be confused with a starting center but is very solid off the bench.
Key Bench - Kevin Payton - 6'4" PG who lacks footspeed on defense. I've never been impressed but he will play and hopefully create offensive matchup problems for opposing defenses. At times he really helps the team and other times he loses his man on defense or has a rash of turnovers. Consistency would lead to more minutes but I don't see it.
Key Bench - Damian Johnson - long and lanky SF. Johnson has tremendous shot blocking ability but often gets lost on defense.
Key Bench - Blake Hoffarber - Minnesota's Mr. Basketball, excellent shooter but may struggle in his first Big Ten season.
Prediction - everything should be improved from a year ago. Last season's train wreck was deceptive. This team had talent but a few heartbreaking losses, an early season coaching change and some key injuries killed this team.
Last year's team struggled to defend, had no flow on offense and didn't rebound. In my view it was a classic situation of utilizing the talent they had. It was a terrible offense and a passive defense. I fully expect Tubby to push these guys like they haven't been pushed before and I am counting on more production from their 3 core players. Through the exhibition season (which I know isn't an exact science) they are much more aggressive defensively, they are attacking the rebounds and they have a much more balanced offense that is leading to point.
The Tubby factor weighs heavily in my prediction of 6th in the league and an NCAA Tournament birth.