Minnesota is looking forward to a turn-around season this year. In Tubby Smith’s sixth season at Minnesota this could be his best team yet. A good start last season turned in to a NIT run, after losing six games in a row down the stretch. This season should be better for Minnesota, who is more experienced and talented this season. I see them as a surprising team to watch, with a ton of potential.
The biggest change for Minnesota is the return of star forward Trevor Mbakwe. Mbakwe, who tore his ACL early last year, will return with hopefully the same strength and explosiveness as he had before. Players with torn ACL’s have had a pretty good record of coming back like nothing happened, recently. If Mbakwe is himself, as is likely, he will be an absolute beast again for Minnesota. The 6-8 fifth sixth year senior has serious NBA hopes. Another good season can get him a mid to first round draft pick.
An important story to watch, though, is if Mbakwe can stay out of trouble. He was arrested for a DUI over the summer. This was not his first run-in with the law for Mbakwe. The team announced he has been punished “internally”, and will not miss any games. Hopefully, for Minnesota’s sake, that will be the last of Mbakwe’s off the court incidents, as he will likely not get another chance.
Minnesota’s only significant loss from last season is Ralph Sampson III. Sampson had high expectations during his career at Minnesota, and though he showed flashes of his potential, he never was consistent. Minnesota should not miss him too much this season.
Smith has some other talented pieces on his roster to play with Mbakwe. Fellow senior big man Rodney Williams will start with Mbakwe. Williams averaged 32 minutes a game and got 12 points and 6 rebounds a game last season. He and Mbakwe will be a dangerous combo down low, and can beat up other teams on the boards. Both Mbakwe and Williams are a bit undersized, but their physicality makes up for the lack of height. Their frontcourt will definitely be their strength this year and will keep them in games with more talented teams.
Minnesota will also have good guard play. Senior point guard Julian Welch was a consistent presence for the Golden Gophers last year, averaging nearly 10 points a game. He is joined in the backcourt with Andre Hollins, who finished last year on fire. Hollins, now a sophomore, could be the best scorer for Minnesota after averaging 17 points over his final nine games last season. Austin Hollins (no relation) will also make an impact thanks to his shooting abilities. Finally, watch for Joe Coleman to also make an impact as a sophomore. He showed his ability to attack the rim and score last year as a freshman. That skill should be important when there are times where Minnesota struggles to hit outside shots. Coleman will likely start.
If Minnesota’s top players can stay healthy, and that is a big if, they can be a very competitive team. They were not included in the preseason coaches poll, but received votes. If they play to their potential they should be a ranked team by season’s end and get in to the NCAA Tournament. This should be Smith’s finest season yet at Minnesota. In one of the strongest Big Ten’s in years Minnesota should finish in the top half. With a healthy Mbakwe and help from both Hollins’, Welch and Williams Minnesota is a real team to watch in 2012-13.
Big Ten Record Predicition: 10-8