Big Ten Basketball Preview: Minnesota

Jonathan Daniel - Getty Images

After Trevor Mbakwe was lost to a season-ending injury early on in the season, the Gophers struggled through Big Ten play. Still, the emergence of Andre Hollins and a surprising run to the finals of the NIT provided a positive finish to the season, and with Mbakwe back, the Gophers should be a dangerous team this year.

Minnesota


Last season

23-15 (6-12), T-9th in the Big Ten

0-2 vs. Michigan (61-56 L in Ann Arbor, 73-69 OT L in the Big Ten Tournament)

The overarching narrative for Minnesota, fair or not, was Trevor Mbakwe's injury. The senior forward tore his ACL in November during a game against Dayton in the Old Spice Classic and effectively ended Minnesota's chances of making the NCAA Tournament. Mbakwe was supposed to carry the team as its lone star -- he had led the team in scoring (13.9 PPG) and rebounding (10.5) the year before, and with Blake Hoffarber, Devoe Joseph, and Al Nolen gone, Mbakwe was the team's only reliable scoring option. His injury was absolutely devastating, as it left only underachieving big man Ralph Sampson and extremely athletic (but not that consistent) wing Rodney Williams as the only proven players on the court.

Despite making it through an easy non-conference schedule at 12-1 -- the only was to Dayton, the game in which Mbakwe was injured -- the Gophers hit a rough spot during conference play, opening at 0-4 in the conference with narrow losses at Illinois, at Michigan, at home against Iowa and a 13 point home defeat at the hands of Purdue. They followed that streak with an impressive road upset over Indiana and managed to work their way onto the tournament bubble with a 5-6 conference record, but lost six and a row (mostly close games against tough opponents) and finished with a 6-12 record in the league. Williams carried the team in scoring and rebounding in Mbakwe's absence but Sampson, sharpshooters Julian Welch and Andre Hollins, and true freshman Austin Hollins also contributed significantly. Minnesota has typically had a deep rotation under Tubby Smith, and this past year was no exception: ten Gophers averaged over ten minutes per game.

The Gophers played well down the stretch -- they defeated a good Northwestern squad in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, took Michigan to overtime (and lost) in the second round, and managed to win their first four games of the NIT -- all on the road, all against higher-seeded opposition -- before bowing out to Stanford in the NIT finals. Over that span, Austin Hollins emerged as a star for the Gophers scoring in double figures in all but one game.

Conference-Only Four Factors

OFFENSE DEFENSE

B1G Rank
B1G Rank
Effective FG % 49.2 8 47.8 4
Turnover % 21.8 12 18.1 8
Offensive Rebounding % 33.4 3 32.1 10
FT Attempts / FG Attempts 36.5 6 43.3 11

Minnesota's offense was its main issue, as the Gophers turned the ball over a ton and weren't able to shoot well enough to compensate. Interestingly, and despite playing with Williams and Sampson in the frontcourt, the Gophers actually ranked higher in three point percentage than two point percentage in conference play. Defensively, Minnesota was solid, if unspectacular; the Gophers forced their opponents into bad shots, but couldn't keep them off of the offensive glass or the free throw line.


Significant Departures

  • C Ralph Sampson III -- 7.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.3 BPG (eligiblity expired)

    Sampson was never quite able to live up to his potential in Minneapolis -- seeming passivity from the 6'11" post player might have been the cause -- but he's a big loss for the Gophers; Sampson was the only reliable post option and was a deft scorer and adequate rebounder. Even though he was frustrating to watch at times, sophomore center Elliott Eliason is going to have a tough task in replacing Sampson's production.

Notable Returnees

  • F Trevor Mbakwe -- 13.9 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 1.5 BPG (in 2010-2011)

    There's probably no more important player in the entire country who is returning to his team from an injury. Mbakwe is an explosive and powerful forward, capable of putting up double-doubles on a consistent basis in the Big Ten, which is an extreme rarity. Minnesota didn't have a go-to scorer last year and Mbakwe definitely fits the bill with his interior presence, so the Gophers benefit greatly from his return. Simply put, Mbakwe's return makes Minnesota a much better team.

  • G Andre Hollins -- 8.7 PPG, 2.1 RPG

    Despite not contributing much early on in the season, Hollins scored in double digits in eight of his last nine games, averaging almost 17 points per game over that span. He's not ideally sized at 6'1" but he's pretty athletic, shoots the ball well, and was capable of playing at an elite level against some decent opposition as a freshman. Hollins figures to improve even more as a sophomore, and while his ceiling is somewhat limited, he's a good bet to be the leading scorer on the perimeter for Minnesota.

  • F Rodney Williams -- 12.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.4 BPG

    I could just put a highlight reel of Williams's dunks here, and that could be sufficient. The high-flying wing is well known for his incredible feats of athleticism, although he's improving as a scorer in other ways as well. Between he and Mbakwe, Minnesota will have plenty of rebounding ability on the wings, but Williams will be tasked with developing his offensive game a bit more and becoming a more consistent scorer to go along with his big play potential.

Key Newcomer

  • Minnesota is bringing in two consensus three star recruits (PF Charles Buggs and SG Wally Ellenson), but since they're bringing back most of a pretty large rotation, neither Buggs nor Ellenson will be counted on to make much of an impact this year.

Games vs. Michigan

Jan. 17 in Minneapolis.

Outlook

Minnesota is perceived as one of the darkhorse teams in the Big Ten entering the season. They probably don't have the interior presence requisite to be a title contender -- Mbakwe would be incredibly undersized to play the five (though he might have to if Eliason can't step up). There are plenty of interesting players: Williams is a human highlight reel, Andre Hollins had a breakout March, Austin Hollins and Julian Welch shoot the ball really well, and Joe Coleman and Oto Osenieks should be better after playing a lot as freshmen. The key will be how well Mbakwe is able to return -- without him, Minnesota would be an average, very guard-oriented team, but with him, they'll have a formidable scorer and rebounder that can take the team to another level. Minnesota should be an NCAA Tournament caliber team, they'll give opponents fits with their athleticism and they should have the outside scoring to compensate for their lack of a scoring option at center.

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