2012-13 Preview: #6 Minnesota Golden Gophers

Tubby Smith enters his sixth year as Minnesota’s head coach looking for a third appearance and first victory in the NCAA tournament. In each of the past two seasons, the Gophers have gone 6-12 in the Big Ten, but believe they have the experience and personnel to earn an invite this season.

Minnesota returns most of the team, including Trevor Mbakwe who is back after an ACL injury last November. The pieces to win are there, but it will be up to Coach Smith and his staff to optimally assemble them for the desired result.

Glass Half Full

Top players can compete with anyone

Trevor Mbakwe (14.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg in 7 games) is coming back after ACL surgery, but is now ready to get back on the court. His aggressiveness and athleticism are keys to his game, but a player like Mbakwe will likely toss off the rust quickly and be close to top form early on in the season.  The 6’8”, 245 pound sixth year senior is an elite rebounder who blocks shots, draws fouls and finishes close to the basket.

Without Mbakwe a year ago, the Gophers used a team effort to do quite well on the offensive boards, but he’ll be a big help in keeping the opposition from getting second chances.

Rodney Williams (12.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg) is an electrifying performer who came on last year as a junior. Williams shot an impressive 59.0% effective field goal percentage (eFG%) and maintained a strong offensive rating while posting a career high usage of more than 19%.

Defensively Williams uses his length and athleticism to block shots and create steals. His confidence appears to be at an all-time high and that does not bode well for Minnesota’s opponents.

Junior wing Austin Hollins (9.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg) uses his long arms to get into passing lanes and defend. On offense, he’s not a high usage guy (just under 18% last season), but when involved he’s very efficient. Austin converted 53.4% of his 2-point attempts and 37.0% of his 3-pointers last year.

A little more consistency would go a long way for Hollins and he is a guy that’s capable of reaching 40% from behind the arc. He’ll be asked to do more as a senior in 2013-14, but this season if he contributes great defense and a consistent 3-point shot, he’ll be giving Minnesota just what they need.

Julian Welch (9.5 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.9 apg, 43.8% 3FG) is often overlooked, but the junior college transfer came in last year and performed very well despite some injuries. Now a senior, Welch might find it difficult to match his accurate shooting from last year, but if he can slightly improve his production from a year ago or even match it, he’ll be an important part of this team.

Sophomore Andre Hollins (8.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.8 apg) projects to have a very good career. He struggled at times last year with turnovers and 2-point shooting, but proved he can make things happen with the ball in his hand. The Gophers are a team that will have different players leading the scoring from game to game, but Dre may be the most likely to post several 20-plus point games.

Other contributors 

Minnesota has two big redshirt sophomore centers in Elliot Eliason (6’11”, 260) and Maurice Walker (6’10”, 290) ready to get physical when needed.

Eliason (2.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg) only averaged 15.1 mpg, but he blocked shots and rebounded at very good rates while on the floor. Of returning Big Ten players who were on the floor for at least a third of their team’s minutes, Elliot Eliason was quietly the best defensive rebounder of them all in 2011-12. He’s not very graceful and needs to cut down on turnovers and silly fouls, but he’s a large young man who makes a difference inside.

Big Mo Walker hasn’t played since a December 2010 PCL injury and subsequent surgery, but is ready to go. With his size and history of injuries, you worry about his conditioning and ability to stay healthy, but if he’s able to consistently give minutes he adds not only a space eater on the blocks, but with his surprisingly soft hands his ability to pass and score are good.

Sophomore guard Joe Coleman isn’t much of a shooter, but he is aggressive going to the rim and is excellent at drawing contact in the paint.

Another option for Tubby Smith is Oto Osenieks, a 6’8” forward who was brought in as a shooter but was forced to play inside last year due to team injuries. The redshirt sophomore went just 11/41 (26.8%) from 3-point range last year, but with a little room he’s an excellent shooter.

Freshmen Wally Ellenson (6’4”, 200) and Charles Buggs (6’8”, 200) both should get some chances to audition their skills during parts of the nonconference schedule. Ellenson has jump-out-of-the-gym athletic abilities, can get hot from long range and won’t be outworked, but did break his hand in late October and could be unavailable well into December. Buggs is a face up four man at this point and needs to gain strength, but he’s very long which will should help him defend. Both young men are athletic and able to score, but they’ll need to prove themselves defensively in order to earn any meaningful minutes. 

Turnovers on offense

The Gophers should be able to reduce their turnovers in 2012-13. Last season’s turnover rate was nearly 23% and in conference they gave up the rock more often than any other team.  Both Dre Hollins and Julian Welch were new to the program and had often played at shooting guard before arriving in the Twin Cities, but in addition to the point guards, the turnover bug bit most of the team. With a veteran squad, Minnesota must be better. 

Defense

Minnesota should be able to improve in three defensive areas (although perhaps not the most important area – field goal defense).

Having a number of long, athletic defenders, being mediocre at turning the opponent over isn’t good enough.  Look for the Gophers to create more defensively in 2012-13.

With Trevor Mbakwe back, this team should not repeat last year’s defensive rebounding performance that put them all the way down in tenth place in the conference. 

Finally, the Gophers put the other team on the line far too often a year ago. Minnesota shot almost four fewer free throws per conference game than their opponent. Another year of experience for many of their players and Mbakwe drawing all sorts of attention inside should result in net improvement here. 

Glass Half Empty

Fallacy of depth

Having healthy bodies available is not the same thing as having great depth. We believe there are two optimal lineups (depending on the opponent) for Minnesota this year and also believe that Minnesota’s best players can add significantly more value than the rest of the roster.

However, Tubby Smith has used a relatively large bench in the past and frequently has subbed in three to five players at the same time within the first 10 minutes of games. The difference between winning and losing a game in the Big Ten and against competitive nonconference opponents is not large and lineup choices can greatly influence outcomes.

There are a lot of kids who can play and help the Gophers this year, but there is a core of seven or eight players that should get the great majority of minutes. Based on history, Tubby’s game plan may not agree.

Health of interior options

Things get physical in the Big Ten, but as long as the Gophers have a healthy Trevor Mbakwe, Mo Walker and Elliot Eliason, they are in great shape. That said, Mbakwe and Walker will be back on the court this fall for the first time since having major knee surgery. In addition, Walker has dealt with other injuries and his conditioning remains a concern due to his size.

If any one of these three is unable to play, it takes away a lot from this team. Andre Ingram is a tough inside guy, but doesn’t have the size or skill of the others. Other options to help defend against post players include Oto Osenieks and freshman Charles Buggs, but they both lack the strength and size to defend some of the bigs that Minnesota will face. 

NBA Dreams vs. Season Goals

Both Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams have aspirations to play in the NBA. The seniors also have things they’d like to prove in order to better their chances of getting a shot at that level. It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff balances out what might be better for the pro prospects of its star seniors and what might benefit this year’s Gopher basketball team.

Most important for Mbakwe is to simply show that he’s still a monster inside that can score, rebound and defend. He may want to show off a mid-range jump shot, but that may not be a bad thing to occasionally display. If he’s playing with aggressiveness and explosiveness, it’s going to help both the team and his draft stock.

Rodney Williams is more the concern here. Last year Rodney excelled when working with a lot of space inside. Williams took more than half of his shots at the rim and was incredibly efficient in doing so. The majority of these shots were created with the help of assists and many were made possible because he was playing with three guards and a center.

If Minnesota has Walker or Eliason out on the court with Mbakwe and Williams, it’ll require more creativity on the coaching staff’s part to get Williams the ball where and when he needs it.

Meanwhile, Rodney has just one more year to prove that he can improve his ball handling and perimeter shooting. While we believe he can show improvement, having Williams trying to create his own shot or knock down 3-pointers is not the most efficient route for him or Minnesota’s offense.

Above all, Rodney needs to show what a great defender he can be as that’s what most likely to get him a chance at the next level. In addition, the confidence, aggressiveness and leadership he showed late last season must carry over and be consistent throughout the year. These things will not only benefit Minnesota this season, but also Rodney’s future. 

Field goal defense in Big Ten

In recent years Minnesota has been one of the better shot blocking teams in America and they should be good again this year. However, they will miss Ralph Sampson. With Mbakwe and Sampson unable to play much of last year, the team’s block % fell and one result was a rise in their opponents’ 2-point field goal percentage. We don’t see a big issue here in 2012-13, but a nice improvement doesn’t look likely either.

Last season other teams liked the idea of attacking the paint more than in the past because of the personnel out on the floor. As a result, there was a drop in the frequency of 3-point attempts taken by opponents. In addition, the Gophers benefited from a relatively weak long distance shooting performance by Big Ten foes.

For several reasons, we believe the lower 3FG% by conference opponents last year was partly due to chance and in 2012-13 we project it to rise. Combined with the possibility of more attempts coming from behind the arc, the Gophers have a big challenge if they are to reduce their overall field goal percentage defense in the Big Ten.

Other Comments

  • 2013 Recruiting: The Gophers have added two Chicagoland kids that have played together on both high school and AAU teams. Alex Foster, a 6’8” forward, and 6’4” wing Alvin Ellis are quality recruits and good fits for the Minnesota program. 

A Look Back at 2011-12 Preseason Preview Quote(s)
Obviously the Gophers would like to be a team that competes for a top four or better finish in the Big Ten each year, but this looks like a program that will be sitting in the middle of the pack over the next few years. A goal should be to make the NCAA tournament each March, but it won’t be an easy task any time soon, especially with the likely emergence of Iowa and Indiana back to respectability in the near future.”

“10th place seems lot more likely to me than 5th place does for this team. Minnesota looks like a team on the outside looking in with regards to the NCAA tournament, but if a few things go right they could sneak up in the Big Ten standings.”

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