2012-2013 ITH season preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers

With the college basketball season on the horizon, we’ll be taking a long look at the conference at large as well as Indiana’s roster over the next few weeks. Today, we look at the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

As Tubby Smith enters his sixth season at the helm in Minneapolis, it’s been a mixed bag of results.

The good? Two trips to the NCAA Tournament (both resulting in a first round loss). Two trips to the NIT, the latest last season culminating in a run to the championship game before falling to Stanford for the title.

The bad? A pedestrian Big Ten record (38–49), including back-to-back 6-12 seasons the last two years. His Golden Gohpers have never finished higher than sixth in the conference. And Smith has also dealt with a host of off-court issues, player defections and injuries the last few seasons, including the loss of star senior Trevor Mbakwe to a torn ACL back in November.

He’s been short on luck.

But there’s hope in the Twin Cities as the team’s 2012-13 season looms. While Ralph Sampson III is gone, Mbakwe was granted a sixth season of eligibility and will return to the team. He started practicing again this month. A healthy, motivated Mbakwe — the team’s leading scorer (13.9 ppg) and the Big Ten’s top rebounder  (10.5 per game, 26.0 DR%) in 2010-11  — is a nice start. But Smith’s lineup should also boast some strong options and good depth. Rodney Williams posted an effective field goal percent of 58.9 last season, making him one of the most efficient scorers in the Big Ten. Only Jordan Hulls, Cody Zeller, Purdue’s Ryne Smith and Michigan’s Jordan Morgan fared better.

Austin Hollins, Julian Welch and Andre Hollins all return as well. Team Hollins played big offensive roles in Minnesota’s run to the NIT Finals last season — Austin averaged 11.2 points a game during the tournament, while Andre averaged 15.0, including two plus-20 outbursts. Junior college transfer Andre Ingram saw a minutes boost in the NIT as well and could be a nice backcourt bench option for Smith.

Elliott Eliason will be available up front to spell the loss of Sampson. Another big man, Maurice Walker, who hasn’t played since Dec. of 2010 due to a knee injury, could also provide minutes in the frontcourt. Smith gave some solid run to freshmen Oto Osenieks (11.1 mpg) and Joe Coleman (18.8 mpg) in 2011-12 — both will be back for their sophomore seasons. Minnesota also welcomes Wally Ellenson and Charles Buggs to campus this fall, two three-star freshmen recruits.

Bottom line: While Minnesota likely isn’t in line for a shot at the conference title, the Golden Gophers are intriguing and a team to watch. Provided the squad is able to avoid the injury bug this season, their talent and depth will allow for some different lineup combinations and matchup issues for their opponents. The Barn is never an easy place to play and Minnesota could find its way into the NCAA Tournament again this season if the team protects its home court.

Quotable: “The last two years have been a real tough time for us with injuries … we had more injuries last year than we’ve ever had and more injuries in the  last two years than I’ve had in my 22 years as a head coach in any season.” — Tubby Smith

PreviouslyNebraskaNorthwesternPenn State, Iowa, Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin

  • SCHoosier

    Tubby’s program has been hurt the last couple of years by injuries and suspensions. Quality coach….can’t overlook these guys as the season progreses..especially with the Big M back.

  • Hoosier_DC

    I would hate to be the strength and conditioning coach at Minn. “More injuries in the past 2 years than I’ve had as 22 years as a head coach” is not something you want on your résumé.

  • Thomas Beindit

    I think it’s going to be extremely interesting to see if the return of Mbakwe can truly make this team that much better. They should certainly be better than last year, with or without him, but can they go from no relevancy to relevancy in 1 year? Maybe, but it’s sure going to be fun to watch.

  • jcopey

    Mbakwe is a beast. With him healthy and improved guard play from the guards, MINN will be a tough team this year.

    As an aside, wasn’t Mbakwe a Crean recruit at Marquette, but chose MINN when Crean took the job at Indiana? Am I dreaming that? I sometimes do that . . .

  • Jethro Troll

    Umm, didnt IU just do that? LOL

  • Jethro Troll

    I really like this team. It’s an outstanding collection of long, athletic guards and wing players. They should be very good defensively, able to crash the boards, and generally make life miserable for their opponents. This will be Tubby’s best team to date in Minneapolis, and they’re a surefire top half B1G squad and an NCAA team this year.

  • BP12

    I could very well be mistaken, but I think Mbakwe actually played for Crean at Marquette during the 2007-2008 season. Can’t believe this is Mbakwe’s 6th season of college ball.

  • Oldguyy

    I thought Eliason showed some potential last year. If he has a jump in effectiveness like Berggren did last year for Wisconsin, Minnesota would really have an imposing front line to go with some fairly good guards.

  • jahhoosier

    Not to mention Tubby is one heck of a coach. One of the best defensive coaches in the game, the absolute best teacher of interior passing at the college level, and a heck of a class act.

    So, agreed, they should be pretty darn good. They and Iowa, to my mind, are what make the league so ridiculous this year (though Minny should be better than Iowa). Any team that can get a road win against the league’s 6th & 7th best teams this year would have to be REALLY good. Of course, the top five teams may just in fact be REALLY good.

    How many leagues can say either of those two statements?

  • Mel Piepho

    Well, sort of. He was at Marquette during 2007-2008 season, but sat out with a knee injury. He was evidently set to return healthy the next year, but with Crean leaving, Mbakwe decided to attend Miami-Dade junior college. This will be his 6th year out of high school.

  • jcopey

    Would have been great if he could have followed Crean to IU. We could have used him!!

  • jpniles

    I am not really sold on Tubby as a coach. His National Championship at Kentucky was with Pitino’s team. However, this team could be scary. I think they have the ability to finish as high as 2nd in the B1G. I would not want to see them in the tournament either… especially if everyone (ahem… Mbakwe) stays healthy. He is a beast and the Hollins boys are no joke. As long as they are not playing the Hoosiers, I will probably root for them.

  • Thomas Beindit

    Yeah, but they brought in a new guy, where this guy is returning, plus they had a lot more help around him

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