Let me put this disclaimer out there: my thoughts have been formed from watching one—yes one—exhibition game, and they are to be taken as such. These are just my first reactions from the watching tonight’s victory over Bemidji State, and are subject to change as the season goes on. I know my opinions will not be the most popular in Gold Country, but they're honest.
I look at exhibition games like watching Howard Pulley summer basketball. If our players really excel, it's comforting, and makes you a little bit more excited for the season. It’s not meant to be an indication or predicator of a Big 10 championship or Final Four appearance. If you don’t like what you see in the team or players, it is particularly alarming, because if you're not looking good in an exhibition game or at Pulley, how are you going to look against Ohio State? I wouldn’t necessarily say that watching the team tonight was reason to cause alarm, but it was not what I was expecting or wanting to see against a team like Bemidji State. The Gophers probably should have won this game by at least 30 points. Instead, we only maintained a lead of 10 points or less for most of the game, and managed to close the game out with a final score of 71-58. When our starters were in the game, they seemed to have things under control. However, when Tubby began to substitute in some of the bench players, our lead would dwindle. You wouldn’t think you'd have to play Trevor Mbakwe 26 minutes to beat Bemidji State.
The Good: Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson truly played like the leaders of this team. They scored 32 of the 71 points, with Mbakwe alone accounting for 11 of the 45 rebounds. It also should be noted that he made 8 out of his 9 field goal attempts.
The Gophers absolutely crushed Bemidji State on the boards, outrebounding them 45 to 23. This shows a lot of aggressiveness and effort, which is a good sign, but should be taken with a grain of salt given the tremendous size and strength advantage the Gophers enjoyed over Bemidji State.
The Bad: The Gophers' 3 point shooting, or lack thereof. Perhaps the expectations were set too high, after Tubby Smith said this was his best shooting team at Minnesota. I wondered who he was talking about after the graduation of the team’s best shooter, Blake Hoffaber. I am anxious to see who will step up to the plate. There were some nerves that had to get worked out, which may help to explain the 1-7 (14%) shooting from behind the arc. My hope is that those nerves will be shaken off by the time the Gophers start the regular season. Our 3 point shooting was off, but we allowed Bemidji State to get off 25 3-point attempts, of which, they made 10 of them. Perimeter defense will be another area of development for the Gophers.
Perhaps more alarming than the non-existent shooting from behind the arc was the team’s performance at the free throw line. Going 12-19 (63.2%) was worse than the 66% we shot last year that landed us as the 11th ranked free throw shooting team in the Big 10. Our free throw shooting cost us a number of games.
Our overall field goal percentage for players not named Ralph and Trevor was equally concerning. When you take away Mbakwe and Sampson, who went 15-22 (68%), the rest of the team went 14-37 (37%) from field goal range. When you've got a player like Mbakwe, he's not a secret. He's a pre-season all Big 10 player, and teams are going to be preparing for him. Sampson is also a senior, and teams will be prepared to handle Sampson and Mbakwe on the inside. The Gophers are in desperate need of another player to step up and handle some of the scoring load.
The Promising: Andre Hollins. I don't think it's any secret, the Gophers desperately needed a point guard to emerge coming into this year. Al Nolen’s injury, along with the transfer of Devoe Joseph, was devastating to the Gophers last season. This was one of the biggest question marks coming into this year. If we have someone that can step up to the plate, run our offense, and control the tempo of the game, we will be competitive. One game is not going to get me too excited or too down in the dumps, but I will say Hollins was a bright spot. He had 8 assists and 0 turnovers, and chipped in 4 rebounds and 7 points, a pretty impressive 1st game stat line for this true freshman.
Another source of potential excitement is Julian Welch. From all accounts, it appeared that Tubby would have started Welch had he not sprained his ankle. If he is indeed an even a better option than Hollins, this season could look better than I thought.
All in all, I came into tonight hoping to see a team that had shown progress from the disappointing end to last season. I do believe they will do that, and learn and grow as the season goes on. What we do know is there is a lot to work on, but there also seems to be a lot of raw talent. How Tubby develops this talent will dictate whether we’re going dancing in March or having our bubble burst in the NIT.