Basketball season is juuuuuust around the corner and with the Gophers’ first exhibition game scheduled for Thursday – against Minnesota State-Mankato – Minnesota will have its first day-before-gameday media access tomorrow.
This time of year, there is no shortage of questions about the coming season. But of course, there are only so many things one can garner from preseason quotes.
Here are five things we’re going to have to wait to find out:
1. Will Trevor Mbakwe look like the old Trevor Mbakwe? In every question asked, the sixth-year senior has said all the right things, given rehab reports, sounded optimistic. We’ve even seen him put some stress on it when he entered the scrimmage during the Gophers All-Star Friday night earlier this month, and jumped and cut and didn’t wince. Still, it was a major knee surgery, and we’re probably going to need a few games for him to shake off the rust before we can get a full idea of his strength in returning.
2. Can this team shoot? It’s true – the 2012-13 Gophers look promising in many ways. Mbakwe is back. There is substantially more depth than a year ago. Andre Hollins has emerged as the point guard, and looks ready to lead the team. Rodney Williams appears to be finally reaching his potential. The frontcourt is no longer a liability. But what about shooting? Tubby Smith pronounced last year’s version one of the best shooting teams he’d ever had and then promptly watched as poor shooting knocked the Gophers out of game-after-game. Even at Minnesota’s peak at the end of the season, shooting was largely a hit-and-miss experiment. In the NIT final, Stanford figured this out and showed how concerning things could be if the Gophers were forced to be a one-dimensional team. The Gophers again say the shooting looks great in practice. But games are a different story. Someone has got to be able to make the big shot. Is that Austin Hollins? Andre? Julian Welch? Who?
3. Will Williams continue his ascent? We waited and waited and waited to see the potential we knew Williams held when he was highly recruited at of high school. We saw glimpses, when he’d jump halfway out of the gym to block a shot or leap over multiple defenders for a dunk. But he was never consistently dominant. Not until last year’s postseason, when Williams – without Mbakwe or Ralph Sampson III in the lineup -- starting taking over every game and finally looking like the athletic beast we knew he was. Will that upward momentum continue? Can Williams reach new heights in his senior season?
4. How will this team re-adapt to playing with Mbakwe? Sure, Mbakwe is the big reason the Gophers have been named in a handful of preseason Top 25 rankings. The forward is highly respected in the league and expected to be one of the Big Ten’s best big men if he comes back healthy. But the Gophers team that returns from last season hit its stride with Mbakwe on the bench. They found an identity as a guard-heavy band of scrappers who moved the ball around constantly and had enough athleticism to make it work. Both Williams and Andre Hollins thrived in that environment. With Mbakwe back, the focus has changed, putting a big man at the heart of the offense. Can the team adjust on the fly? Or will there be a learning curve?
5. Can Andre Hollins be a Big Ten point guard? Hollins emerged as a force at the end of the season last year, and showed he’s more than capable in dominating a game. Still, Hollins is a scorer first, and is still learning the intricacies of guiding a team offensively. He made a big jump in his freshman season, but he’ll need to make an ever greater one this season for the Gophers to keep up in the league.
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Michigan, No. 4 Iowa and No. 2 Maryland are the next three teams on the schedule before Minnesota meets Rutgers, which is also winless in the Big Ten.