It was evident during last year’s unexpected NIT run, the Minnesota Golden Gophers basketball program is going to go as far as Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams take them. Oh, and don’t sleep on Trevor Mbakwe, the sixth year senior, who will be back to create match-up nightmares for opposing power forwards. Hollins and Williams broke out in a big way after Big Ten play concluded last season, giving Gopher fans a strong sense of optimism as the season begins Friday night in Minneapolis.
Hollins, who is entering his sophomore campaign, didn’t start to show his flash and energy until February and March of last year. “Dre” became both a creative force and dynamic scorer after he ditched the robotic formula that often times plagues Tubby Smith’s offensive sets. If he can continue to improve and mature, he could rival Trey Burke, Tim Frazier and Aaron Craft in a fight for the conference’s top point guard.
The notoriously high-flying Williams was the team’s best player last season playing the four position, which was left vacated when Trevor Mbakwe went down with a torn ACL last November 27. Williams averaged a shade over 12 points and 5.6 rebounds per game in his junior season; but it was his athleticism, developing mid-range jump shot and fierce tenacity that helped the team improve immensely down the stretch. It will be interesting to see what the Gophers do with him, now that Mbakwe will be back in the mix at the four.
Speaking of Mr. Mbakwe, he continues to make national headlines as just a few days ago he tweeted a guarantee that the Gophers would make the NCAA Tournament. If they don’t, he would repay his allotted scholarship money over the past three seasons. While I find that hard to believe, and I’ve never been a big believer in athletes making guarantees, you can’t knock his confidence.
Mbakwe is one of the league’s best rebounders, and at age 23, he puts a whole new meaning to the phrase “a man playing amongst boys.” His supreme strength and rebounding skill will be heavily relied upon this season as the Gophers play a tougher non-conference schedule than they have in seasons past. The schedule boasts match-ups against Florida State, and Duke in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament; both teams are nationally ranked in the preseason polls.