It’s never a bad thing when a team gets some early hype (unless of course it can’t live up to the advertising).
But toss aside the numerous predictions that put Minnesota in the national top-25; given last year’s conference record… and the year before’s … fans should foremost be concerned with how the Gophers stack up in the Big Ten.
If you judge the situation based solely on each team’s arsenal, the Gophers indeed do compare favorably.
The Gophers lose just two players -- graduating Ralph Sampson III, a player that didn’t even sniff the team’s late-season success after suffering a knee injury in the last game of the regular season, and then transferring Chip Armelin, a player who provided pop, but was never heavily relied on. The only team that lost less than Minnesota is Indiana, which didn’t lose a single player and could arguably be the best team in the country come fall.
Meanwhile, the Gophers essentially GAINED two new stars before any new recruits or transfers stepped into any Big Ten program. Make no mistake, the Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams that we saw in the postseason were brand new leaders for Minnesota, which went through a lot of growing pains early. You add those versions of those players to the Gophers at the beginning of 2011-12, and the standings would have tumbled out differently. Considering their potential contributions next season, the team looks very different. Then, of course, there’s the biggie: Trevor Mbakwe deciding (and being allowed) to return for a sixth season. The respect for the big man throughout college basketball is pretty evident by the way Minnesota leapt into national analysis immediately after Mbakwe announced he would return. If Mo Walker returns from his knee injuries and helps solidify the post position, the Gophers are even better off.
The rest of the league, meanwhile, has lost a lot of star power. Let’s take a look:
Middle of the pack: this is where the Gophers were presumed to be last year (but instead fell toward the bottom) and where they must have an edge next season. But a lot of big names that carried these teams in their victories last season are gone now.
Purdue graduated Lewis Jackson and Robbie Hummel, leaving them with a shell of a team that snuck into the NCAA tournament last year. Northwestern – which missed its shot again at the big dance – loses its star, John Shurna. Iowa’s Matt Gatens will no longer be intimidating all over the court for the Hawkeyes, and Illinois – which has to start anew and totally forget the painful past – saw Meyers Leonard bolt for the NBA draft.
Top dogs: Most polls and popular opinion have the Big Ten powerhouses not falling too far. But the elite should be a little more penetrable this year – and they were plenty penetrable last year – by the middle-of-the-pack teams. Michigan caught a break when point guard Trey Burke decided to return for a second year after testing the NBA waters, but the Wolverines still lost Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, key contributors in 2011-12. The other big three –Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State -- ended up worse. The Badgers lost senior leader and point guard Jordan Taylor. Ohio State said goodbye to both Jared Sullinger and William Buford – the two that were counted on for nearly half the Buckeyes offense. MSU has to continue on without the incredible Draymond Green – a loss that cannot be overstated -- not to mention Brandon Wood, the Spartans’ self-appointed best player.
Down at the bottom, Penn State and Nebraska are still at least another year or two away from being deemed really competitive.
All in all, the Gophers have been dealt a pretty nice deck, and have been given an opportunity while the rest of the league rebuilds (and it will; elite programs don’t stay mediocre for long) to take advantage of the sudden experience edge and do some Big Ten damage.
Of course, that’s just how everything looks on paper. In the past two years, the Gophers have watched injuries and underperformance undermine early predictions. Anything could happen, but right now, for the Gophers, that “anything” includes big results.
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