(Follow me tonight and during all of Minnesota's games this season through my Twitter feed. I'm @GophersBBGuy)

 The Gophers men's basketball team faces Division II Northeastern State Tuesday night at Williams Arena, one of two home exhibitions before next week's season-opener against Wofford.

Here are five key questions about the game:

1. Who is Trevor Mbakwe?

The former St. Bernard's and Henry Sibley star could be a difference-maker this year. But there isn't much in the archive to support the hype or the naysayers. Mbakwe was injured for the bulk of his freshman year at Marquette. Then, he dominated at the junior college level. But he missed all of last year.

Players and coaches have great things to say about him. But this is kind of like his Division I debut. I think he'll exceed expectations with his athleticism, explosiveness and physicality.

But we won't know until he hits the floor.

2. Why isn't Devoe Joseph starting? 

Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said he will probably start Al Nolen, Blake Hoffarber, Rodney Williams, Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III.

Joseph looked like the best player on the roster during the team's run in the Big Ten tourney last season. And he adapted to playing point guard when Nolen had to miss the second half of the season because of academic issues.

At the end of last season, Joseph looked like a guy whom Smith would have to start entering the 2010-11 season. I actually thought he was the only returning player with a guaranteed spot in Smith's starting five.

But Smith has decided to bring him off the bench. For now.

Injury might be the reason. A source close to the team told me that Joseph is "nursing a leg injury but will play" Tuesday against Northeastern State. After Monday's practice, Joseph had a bag of ice on his foot.

It hasn't been a healthy offseason for Joseph, who suffered a knee/quadriceps injury during tryouts for the Canadian national basketball team over the summer.

Another challenge is that Nolen's only backup is freshman Maverick Ahanmisi. So my guess is that Joseph will play both positions until the staff is comfortable with Ahanmisi directing the second unit. The latter may not happen this season. So they'll really need Joseph's versatility.

At the same time, Joseph might be the best player on this team. So it's hard to imagine Joseph playing a reserve role by the time the Big Ten season begins.

3. Will Rodney Williams play with confidence? 

Last year, the former Cooper star was a freshman who many expected to play a major role with an NCAA tournament team, especially after a rapid start.

But then, he started to look like a freshman. He made mistakes. His minutes were reduced.

HIs biggest issue, however, was a lack of confidence. Williams has more athletic ability than most of the guys playing Division I basketball. But he wouldn't attack the rim last year. A lot of times, he'd take a rushed three or he'd dribble himself into a corner or he'd defer to a teammate and stay out of the play.

That can't be the 2010-11 Rodney Williams.

During Monday's media session, Williams told me that he's working on becoming a more confident player. He said he's also focused on his ballhandling.

A confident Williams can be one of the most improved players in this league.

4. Will the freshmen contribute? 

Smith called his freshman class the "most mature" group he's ever recruited. That says a lot about Maverick Ahanmisi, Oto Osenieks (redshirting), Chip Armelin, Maurice Walker, Austin Hollins and Elliott Eliason (likely redshirt).

And the fourth-year coach believes they can all contribute. He even said that Hollins, Walker and Armelin are "pushing" the upperclassmen ahead of them in the rotation. I've talked to folks close to the team who believe Hollins has a chance to crack the starting lineup by the beginning of Big Ten play.

And with his 6-10, 320-pound frame, Walker will be hard to stop in the paint.

5. Is Al Nolen the same player? 

The former Minneapolis Henry star is young. So he certainly has the physical abilities to begin playing at a high level again, even though he missed a chunk of the 2009-10 season. But he needs to be prepared mentally because this team needs his leadership. And his defensive instincts made him one of the best perimeter defenders in the country.

At Big Ten media day last week, Nolen told me that sitting out allowed him to think like a coach. He said he watches games from a different perspective now. And he said he believes his time away from the game allowed him to become a better player.



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