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B1G Opening Day Thoughts

The last day of the calendar year brings us two great games to start off the Big Ten season: Michigan State at Minnesota (1pm CT) and Indiana at Iowa (3pm CT). Both games are on ESPN2.

Looking back on our preseason thoughts at this 2012-13 Big Ten Previews page, there’s not much we’d change. The following is all consistent with the beginning of the year:

  • We see 6 teams that look like tourney teams: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin;
  • There are 2 teams that could reach the tourney: Illinois and Iowa;
  • and the other 4 teams we don’t see as tourney teams: Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue.

Illinois outperforming most expectations thus far is not a surprise – we gave reasons for why this was likely in their preseason preview (where we ranked them #7 in the Big Ten, higher than the consensus). That said, they are currently overrated and we still like the #7 prediction.

Purdue is down and worse than most expected. Again, the reasons why we didn’t believe in Purdue’s prospects for a decent 2012-13 although many others did are included in their preseason preview (we ranked them #10).

Iowa (11-2) is a trendy pick for some and their stock could rise even more with a victory over Indiana today, but they’re still a year away from making significant noise in the conference. Next season the Hawkeyes project to be very good.

What’s been the biggest surprise to date is how good Michigan freshmen Nik Staukas and Glenn Robinson have been. We’re still not quite believers in them being a top 5 (much less the #2) team in the nation, but the Wolverines have been excellent and exciting to watch.

As for the Gophers, we still see them as a tournament team, but still not up at the top of the conference. They’re a dangerous and talented team, but probably more in the 20-25 range rather than the top 10.

A big reason for this view on Minnesota is a concern with their 2-point field goal shooting. We’ll share a lot more of the detail later this week, but a couple of things to consider for now:

Minnesota’s nonconference field-goal shooting for this season and 2011-12 is summarized below. The data includes all games other than the 18 scheduled Big Ten games.

eFG%

2FG%

3FG%

2012-13

50.6%

51.5%

32.2%

2011-12

53.4%

53.5%

35.5%

The team data is important, but we also have gone into individual player data. For example, Rodney Williams has improved his nonconference shooting percentages for both shots at the rim (i.e., dunks, tip-ins, layups) and all other 2-point shots, respectively. However, the information depicted in the pie charts below is very important. We’ll explain more later this week. (Current year data from hoop-math.com; prior year data from Late Night Hoops research.)

Rodney Williams Shot Attempt Location Splits

Shot Chart

RW 12-13 shot chart

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2012-13 Player Previews: Minnesota Golden Gophers

This article is available in PDF format. Bookmarks are included to facilitate navigation: CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: 2012-13 Player Previews: Minnesota Gophers

High-level player previews and season expectation for each scholarship student-athlete on Minnesota’s 2012-13 roster are included below. Players are listed in one of three sections: Point Guards, Bigs or Wings.

This year’s team has enough experience and skill to produce Tubby Smith’s best year since he’s been in the Twin Cities. However, whereas most have described the team as having great depth, we believe there are currently 8 players that belong in the regular rotation.

At the end of this article, we offer our preferred lineups (although we fully expect the Minnesota coaching staff to use the bench far more).

POINT GUARDS

Andre Hollins

6’1”, 200 | Sophomore
21.1 mpg, 8.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.8 apg

Dre is the team’s best go-to scorer as he’s able to score in various ways. He gets nice elevation on his jump shot and is accurate out to well past the 3-point arc. In addition, Hollins can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. We expect he’ll finish stronger and more consistently as a sophomore.

Last year, Dre made just 40.5% of his 2-point attempts (team average was 50.6%) and that must improve. Another area for improvement is reducing turnovers (26% turnover rate). Hollins had just 0.85 assists for each turnover.

As he’s entering his second year at Minnesota, Dre’s profile including last season’s numbers point to an impressive sophomore year. The obvious growth in confidence that Hollins exhibited late last season will carry over well.

Expectations: 11-14 ppg; improved A/T ratio; eFG% increase of 2.5%+; under-90% FT%.

Julian Welch
6’3”, 195 | Senior
24.7 mpg, 9.5 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.9 apg

Welch is an excellent spot up shooter and can hit from mid-range off the dribble. He fought through injuries last year and was still one of the biggest contributors to the team. The Gophers can’t afford to have him sitting on the bench too often. We believe he should play the role of backup point guard, but also get time alongside Dre Hollins as shooting guard. Very important player and  underrated by most.

Expectations: 8-12 ppg; lower 3FG% due to high comparison (43.8%); lower TO Rate by 3-5%.

Maverick Ahanmisi
6’2”, 192 | Junior
13.3 mpg, 2.7 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 1.6 apg

Despite some limitations, Ahanmisi does play with a lot of heart. We’d have him as a fill in option should Andre Hollins or Julian Welch go down, but suspect that Tubby Smith will play him for 10 minutes or so in most games.

In seven career starts against Big Ten teams, Ahanmisi doesn’t have a win and has gone just 9/40 (22.5%) from the field. His turnover rate improved as a sophomore, but it’s still far too high and although he can knock down an open triple, he finished the year below 30% in each of his first two seasons.

He does provide Minnesota with an experienced point guard option should they run into injury problems.

Expectations: 2-4 ppg

BIGS

Trevor Mbakwe
6’8″, 245 | Senior
28.7 mpg, 14.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg

Mbakwe is coming off an ACL injury and it could be awhile before he’s feeling completely comfortable on the floor, but even at 80% he’s be better than most guys at 100%. Absolutely ferocious on the boards, we expect he’ll again be one of the best rebounders in the conference.

Thanks to his long wingspan and athleticism, Trevor can handle playing center for Minnesota, but with Elliot Eliason and Mo Walker also available he may find most of his time at power forward. We’d like to see what Mbakwe and Rodney Williams can do along with three guards on floor, but a question coming into the season is how often Tubby Smith will utilize such a lineup.

Regardless of where he plays, Mbakwe should be on the court as much as he’s able to be. He’s a game changer and leader on the floor.

Expectations:  11-14 ppg, 9-11 rpg

Elliot Eliason
6’11”, 260 | Sophomore
15.1 mpg, 2.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg

He’ll never be known for being graceful, but Eliason’s size is enough to get him minutes. He put together superb rebounding numbers last year and this fall looks much stronger and even a bit taller. When Eliason and Mbakwe are in the lineup together, the Gophers should be able to keep the number of second chances for the opposition lower than last season.

Two areas where Elliot must improve are turnovers and fouling. We believe these will still be issues for him in 2012-13, but less so than last year.

Expectations: 4-5 ppg, 5-7 rpg

Maurice Walker
6’10”, 289 | Sophomore
Redshirted in 2011-12

Big Mo’s freshman year ended in December 2010 due to a PCL injury. He’s ready for action this year and provides a different look at center than Eliason. Walker is an immense presence who can bang down low and secure rebounds despite a lack of lift.

His touch is very good for someone his size and he could turn into a nice scoring option for Minnesota. If Mo can stay healthy and get his conditioning up, he’s a difference maker. Really nice potential and could be excellent on the offensive glass, but probably a year away.

Expectations: Anywhere from 4-8 ppg and he should produce a couple of standout games.

Andre Ingram
6’7″, 213 | Senior
8.8 mpg, 1.9 ppg, 1.6 rpg

Ingram transferred in from Butler Community College (Kan.) before last season and provided some solid minutes off the bench late in the year. He’s got a history of injuries that may continue to nag, but is a strong and tough interior player with good athletic ability.

He’ll be called upon to help off the bench and provides another option should one of the other bigs go down. His job will be to defend, rebound and take care of the ball when it’s in his hands.

Expectations: 2 ppg

WINGS

Oto Osenieks
6’8”, 205 | Sophomore
11.1 mpg, 3.0 ppg, 1.7 rpg

Oto was needed inside last year and will probably be called upon to play a couple of different roles this season. He was brought into the program as a perimeter threat, but was stuck inside much of last year. He gave a good effort on defense, but ideally we’d have him playing out on the wing on both sides of the court.

Osenieks turned the ball over a lot last year and shot just 11/41 (26.8%) from 3-point range and 16/34 (47.1%) from the line. We attribute these poor numbers largely to inexperience and nerves. While he’s still not looking consistently comfortable on the floor this fall, he’s a very good shooter.

With the lack of proven 3-point shooters this Gopher team has, getting Osenieks some experience and opportunities to build his confidence before the Big Ten season begins could help down the stretch. Oto needs to be confident in his shot and good things will happen.

While we see him as a reserve player at this point in time, he’ll probably get a fair amount of floor time to prove himself from Tubby Smith. Osenieks is capable of having a game where he knocks down 4 or 5 3-point shots and keys a victory for Minnesota.

Expectations: Anywhere from 3 to 7 ppg; dramatic increases to his 3FG and FT percentages.

Rodney Williams
6’7”, 200 | Senior
31.9 mpg, 12.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.4 bpg

Williams took a big leap forward as a junior, but he can’t let up. He needs to consistently produce and fully embrace a simple fact: he’s an incredible basketball player.

When he’s in a groove and playing with confidence, Rodney is a special player. Sure, he has his faults: his perimeter shooting is not strong and free throws are a source of frustration. However, his size and athleticism is such that he can be a star without taking 3-point shots and making only 60% of his free throws.

Potentially playing with both Mbakwe and one of the two big centers in the lineup also on the court, the coaching staff needs to find ways to keep Rodney involved in the offense.

As a junior, Williams played more minutes than he did during his freshman and sophomore years combined. While his handles aren’t great, we believe as a senior he’ll be able to create off the dribble a bit more and is capable of putting together an all-conference season if he can keep the fire going strong all year.

Expectations: 11 to 15 ppg and more recognition of his defensive play. The national folks know Rodney can dunk with the best of them, but this year he should further prove his value on defense. We project his offensive efficiency to go slightly down, but his overall Value Add to increase.

Austin Hollins
6’4”, 185 | Junior
28.4 mpg, 9.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg

Austin was terrific overall last year, but must be consistent. On defense he uses his length well and on offense he shot the ball with high accuracy, including 51/138 (37.0%) on 3-point attempts. Hollins and Julian Welch were easily the most valuable players on last year’s team after Rodney Williams.

Austin’s usage rate was under 18% and in another year as a senior he’ll need to increase that figure based on how the roster currently projects. This year as a junior, usage of 17-19% is fine as long as he is knocking down the deep ball at a percentage as good as, or better than, last year’s.

We’d like to see better consistency and a little more aggressiveness from Austin this year. He’s not the flashiest player, but he can make teams pay if they don’t respect his athleticism.

Expectations: 10 to 12 ppg; team leader in 3-pointers made

Joe Coleman
6’4”, 200 | Sophomore
18.8 mpg, 5.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg

Joe is an aggressive attacker that can find his way to the rim and draws a lot of contact. Coleman was a strong kid coming into the program a year ago, but is even bigger this year. He’s fearless when taking the ball inside and that’s exactly what the Gophers need him to do.

His perimeter shooting is not good and this season it’s not needed. He’ll want to continue developing his outside shot, but in games this season Minnesota needs Coleman to concentrate where he excels – attacking the basket.

If he capitalizes on offensive opportunities when they’re there, but doesn’t push things when they’re not, this can be a very nice year for the sophomore.

Expectations: 7 to 9 ppg; Top 15 in conference free throw rate

Charles Buggs
6’8”, 198 | Freshman

Buggs may find himself playing inside more often than out, but offensively he’s a face up guy with good range. He’s ridiculously long and quite athletic; an intriguing prospect.

We think it will take some time for Charles to catch up defensively at this level, but if the Gophers need him to play, his length may help mitigate him being out of position.

Buggs looks like a versatile 3/4 that can run well, score and defend multiple positions. Give him a little time, though.

Expectations: 3 to 5 ppg

Wally Ellenson
6’4”, 200 | Freshman

Ellenson possesses amazing leaping abilities and a strong work ethic. While he can impress with his dunks, Ellenson can also heat up from the outside with a nice shooting stroke.

Wally suffered a broken hand in practice and is likely out until sometime in December. It’s possible the Gophers would look to keep him out of action for the entire season in order to preserve a year of eligibility, but if they need minutes off the bench from a tough energy guy who can shoot, he’ll be ready to go.

Expectations: Dependent on recovery and rehabilitation from injury.

Late Night Hoops’ Preferred Lineups:

LINEUP 1 LINEUP 2
Andre Hollins Andre Hollins
Julian Welch or Joe Coleman Austin Hollins
Austin Hollins Rodney Williams
Rodney Williams Trevor Mbakwe
Trevor Mbakwe Elliot Eliason or Mo Walker
SUBS: Julian Welch or Joe Coleman, Elliot Eliason and Mo Walker SUBS: Julian Welch, Joe Coleman and Elliot Eliason or Mo Walker

In lineup 1, Welch provides a third 3-point threat and another ball handler, whereas Joe Coleman provides an attacking guard.

In lineup 2, the benefits of Eliason vs. Walker need to be compared relative to the opposition.

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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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