B1G Basketball Preview: Minnesota

Written October 21st, 2011 by Eric

This is Trevor Mbakwe's team now.

Tubby Smith’s troops took one in the chin last year, but you can bet that they’re ready to go this time around.  Unfortunately, they’re a little light in experienced ball players this year around, and are missing a couple of key players from last season.  Al Nolen, Blake Hoffarber and Colton Iverson (transfer to Colorado State) are all gone from what could have been a very successful team last season.

Take this as a compliment, but I for one am fervently thankful that Hoffarber has graduated and moved on from Minnesota.  Easily one of the most dangerous sharp-shooters in the Big Ten last year – and considering the company that puts him with, that’s saying something – Hoffarber drove defenders, and me, nuts with his devastating three-balls.  Every time he would spot up for a trey you simply knew it was going down, and it was honestly a surprise when it didn’t.

Well, ok, that only really ever happened against the Buckeyes, but it was still very annoying.

We continue our preseason Big Ten conference previews with the Hoffarber-less Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Last Season:

Minnesota fans, we’ll wait while you avert your eyes.  I’m sure you don’t want to relive this crime against your basketball team again, and I can’t say I blame you.

Disaster struck in Minneapolis last year, and disaster’s name was “Devoe Joseph”.

I bet you were expecting me to say “Al Nolen”, weren’t you?  He plays a part in this sordid tale, but the issues plaguing Minnesota were in no way his fault.

At the start of the 2010-2011 season Minnesota had two point guards, Senior Al Nolen and Junior Devoe Joseph.  Al Nolen, who averaged 29 minutes per game and 8.4 points, was the starter.  He was a tremendous leader on and off the court who made his team dangerous by distributing the ball to the scorers rather than scoring himself.  Devoe Joseph was the backup, but still played 25 minutes and averaged 11 points per game despite having an established leader in the depth chart ahead of him.

In the preseason, Al Nolen suffered a foot injury called “Plantar Fasciitis” which sidelined him for five games, including a loss to Virginia in the Big Ten/ACC Challange, and a win over then #20 Saint Joseph’s.  Early in that stretch, Austin Hollins started in place of Nolen, but by the end, Devoe Joseph had taken over the starting spot.

Al Nolen returned earlier than anticipated.  Originally projected to be out until the January 9th matchup with Ohio State, he managed to play again on December 23rd, the last preseason game before Big Ten play.  Things were looking up for Minnesota who, despite losing close battles against Wisconsin and Michigan State, looked like they could compete at the top of the Big Ten.

And then strangeness happened.

On January 5th, despite averaging 25 minutes and 11 points per game, Devoe Joseph requested a transfer from Minnesota.  He was granted his request, and soon joined the Oregon Ducks basketball team.  When asked, his former AAU head coach was as confused as everyone else, citing a conversation with Devoe Joseph just before he transferred where Joseph complained of a lack of playing time.

Minnesota would have had no problem surviving the loss of a solid backup player and future starter through the end of the season.  But then Al Nolen broke his foot in a win against Michigan on January 22nd.  He was sidelined for the rest of the season.  Tubby Smith was forced to run a huge lineup of four forwards with Blake Hoffarber – an obvious shooting guard – as a point guard.  The lineup did not work particularly well as the Gophers went an abysmal 2-10 to end the season.

Key Player:

Julian Welch as a Freshman at UC Davis.

Normally, I would probably talk about this being Ralph Sampson and Trevor Mbakwe’s senior years and how they’ll be the key leaders carrying this team on their shoulders.  However, Minnesota needs a serious backcourt presence if they expect to win basketball games.  Therefore, the player that will have the most impact on the team will be the guy who wins the battle for the starting Point Guard position.

Considering the extreme youth at guard for this Minnesota team, I had almost no idea of exactly who would be the most likely to start – so I approached J.B. Bauer of Gopherhole.com to help me out.  If you’re interested in a more detailed preview of the Gophers, his preview is an excellent read.

The point guard position has shaped into a three-way battle between Freshman Andre Hollins, incoming JUCO Julian Welch (Junior eligibility), and Sophomore Maverick Ahanmisi.  Of the three, Andre Hollins is the most popular answer among Minnesota fans, mostly because his name has been out there more.  J.B.’s answer is Mr. Welch, and I must say I agree with him.

Julian Welch originally started at UC Davis, where he was the Big West freshman of the year his first season.  After a coaching staff issue, Welch left to join Yuba Community College where he played for a year before joining Minnesota.  While Welch is a shooting guard, like most of the other guards on this Minnesota team, he did play some point at Yuba.

Welch is already tailoring his game to meet with Minnesota’s need for a point guard.  He has experience at the position, and experience at the Division 1 level, and knows what needs to be done.  Couple that with his scoring and the fact that he has a good mid-range game – something unusual for a shooting guard these days – and you have a combination that will be lethal with the ball in his hands.

There will certainly be growing pains at the position this year.  Welch’s previous experience should help temper some of those issues and give Minnesota a solid place to kick-start their offense.

New Player to Keep an Eye on:

Despite the belief that Welch will start, that doesn’t mean that Andre Hollins won’t play.  Tubby Smith’s incoming class is loaded with Shooting Guards, and Hollins is on the top of the list.  Andre is a decent shooter from long range, but is best when he attacks the hoop off the dribble drive.  He’s got excellent quickness, and great floor vision to see gaps in the defense and get to the cylinder.  He’s also a solid defender with good stance and feet movement – excellent fundamentals that lead to good defense.

There are a lot of young guards on this team, and many may very well see playing time in the early season as Tubby tries to work out who will produce this most for this team.  Expect Andre Hollins to be near the top of the list of solid contributors throughout the season.

Big Games this Season:

The Gophers take on Virginia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC challenge this season, and also play USC at home three days later.  Finally, they take on DePaul as a neutral site game on November 24th.  The rest of the schedule is pretty light, and a good way for the young backcourt to get their feet wet in D-1 basketball.

Incidentally, I believe this is the first preseason basketball schedule I have ever seen where every single game played is listed as “home” game.  Other than the DePaul game, which is the first of three games played in Orlando as part of the ESPN Old Spice Classic, and in which Minnesota is the “Home team”, the first Minnesota game not played in the Barn will be on December 27th against Illinois.  That’s crazy.

Outlook for the Season:

Young teams are always the most difficult to predict without actually seeing them take the floor.  Under the direction of Tubby Smith, and with an experienced and talented frontcourt, the Gophers stand to be a dangerous team.  But, unless they can find a consistent backcourt presence, both in scoring and in distributing, they will struggle against more talented and more experienced basketball teams.

Where They’ll Finish:

With the Big Ten generally taking a step back in team quality this season, Minnesota has an opportunity to catch a few teams by surprise and crawl their way back into the middle of the pack.  Considering what the Gophers have lost, including Hoffarber, Nolen and Colton Iverson (transfer to Colorado State), it will be tough for them to really succeed in the Big Ten.  It’s particularly true that new players take a bit of time to get accustomed to the style of play in the league.

But don’t count Tubby Smith out.  He is a very good basketball coach and with the right pieces, is more than capable of bringing Minnesota a step towards legitimacy in the conference.  I expect that the Gophers will end with a record of around 9-9 in conference, and finish 6th or 7th in the league overall.

Whether that carries them into the tournament or not is up for grabs.  That record was enough to get Michigan State, Illinois, Penn State and Michigan into the tournament last season, but that was also with a conference that was loaded from top to bottom.  That situation doesn’t necessarily exist this season, so it remains to be seen if the Gophers can go dancing this year.

1 Comment

  1. jNo Gravatar
    October 23rd, 2011 at 12:30 am

    Gophers will finish top three in the conference.


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