Gophers basketball: Season of hope? Or more heartbreak?

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 12, 2012 - 11:24 AM

The Gophers start practice tonight with expectations as high as ever, thanks to a deep roster full of big men in a weakened Big Ten.

hide

Trevor Mbakwe.

Photo: Tom Olmscheid, Associated Press

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

It's a "Jekyll and Hyde" kind of conversation when it comes to the Gophers men's basketball program.

In one breath, there is optimism for a team that showed improvement at the end of the season and looks to be deeper this season with the much-awaited return of Trevor Mbakwe and Mo Walker from knee injuries.

Then, a palpable hesitance that trails nearly every acclamation -- the product of watching a program underperform and miss the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, regardless of early hype.

Fans fear more heartbreak; experts make predictions with cautious scrutiny. On paper things look good, but both groups have watched many of the same pieces fall short before.

The Gophers enter Friday night's first official practice with a clear opportunity to succeed. Playing in a Big Ten that should be slightly weaker than a year ago, they return every significant player from a team that rallied to make it to the NIT championship game. They add Mbakwe and Walker, along with freshmen Wally Ellenson and Charles Buggs. That has boosted the Gophers to kiss the edges of a few preseason top 25 rankings, including ones by ESPN's Andy Katz and CBS Sports.

A popular thought is emerging: the talent on the Gophers' roster is there; it's a matter of what coach Tubby Smith does with it.

"I look at this team and there are a lot of reasons to be excited," former Gophers player-turned-broadcaster Kevin Lynch said. "They've got experience, they've got a good point guard [Andre Hollins] that's kind of emerging, they've got some size coming back. If this team can shoot well ... they've got a lot of good pieces there."

The pressure is on Smith, in his sixth year with the program, to lift the Gophers out of the "almost" realm and show the fans that the program is making progress. Smith, who hasn't won an NCAA tournament game at Minnesota, received a contract extension over the summer, but with a new athletic director on board, there remains plenty of scrutiny over his job performance.

AD Norwood Teague said that "people just want to feel good about our efforts" and that he can't yet evaluate what would happen if the Gophers missed the NCAA tournament again. But around campus, the expectations for Smith are clear.

"I think it's time for something to happen," Lynch said. "I'm not saying it's do or die and if not [Smith is] out of a job. But I do get the sense ... there is some urgency for Tubby to have a good season. ... I think there is definitely some hunger from fans and from me, that this needs to happen."

After all, the Gophers are deeper in the post than they have been in years with the returns of Mbakwe and Walker, an intimidating low presence who hasn't played in a game since December 2010. Meanwhile, at the end of last season, Hollins began making a name for himself as a scoring point guard while Rodney Williams broke out of his shell with performances that were athletically and statistically dominant.

But count the assets, and you find just as many questions.

"I think there is the talent for them to be a legit top-20 team all season, for them to finish in the top three, top four in the Big Ten," Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Eisenberg said. "And yet we haven't seen it. There are a lot of question marks on that roster. Is [Mbakwe] going to come back healthy and be the player he was? What can Mo Walker give them after a year and a half away from the court? Is Rodney Williams going to go back to what he was before Trevor [tore his ACL] or is he going to be more of the player he was at the end of the year? Can Andre Hollins build on the end of his season last year?"

Austin Hollins is the designated three-point shooter, but when he struggled, the team struggled with him. At the same time, adding Mbakwe vastly changes the landscape of a team that found its groove without him last year and could force some position changes.

"I think they're going to have some moments where they have to learn how to play with each other," said Quincy Lewis, the ex-Gophers player who is a local TV analyst and radio personality. "Once they get past that learning curve, you're going to see a steep progression."

There won't be much time for tinkering. The Gophers' nonconference schedule will be full of challenges -- including Duke and two other solid matchups at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas paired with games at Florida State and at an improved USC squad. That could help amplify the Gophers' hype or bury it.

"When you get to No. 20-25 in the [preseason] rankings, there are a good 20 teams that can all slide in there and you can make a valid argument," Sports Illustrated contributor Rob Dauster said.

Whether the Gophers belong in that mix remains to be seen, but the consensus is the opportuniy exists.

"They've had an up-and-down five years under Tubby [Smith]," Eisenberg said, "But if this team stays healthy, I see no reason why they can't finish in the upper half of the Big Ten, maybe even higher than that. They certainly have a great shot at the NCAA tournament and potentially have a chance to do some damage there."

  • GOPHERS MEN'S BASKETBALL

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

New England 2/1/15 5:30 PM
Seattle
Milwaukee 115 FINAL
Orlando 100
New York 82 FINAL
Indiana 103
Denver 69 FINAL
Memphis 99
Chicago 118 FINAL
LA Lakers 123
Montreal 1 FINAL
NY Rangers 0
Winnipeg 2 FINAL
Philadelphia 5
Boston 5 FINAL
NY Islanders 2
Arizona 3 FINAL
Toronto 1
Dallas 6 FINAL
Ottawa 3
Detroit 1 FINAL
Tampa Bay 5
Columbus 2 FINAL
Florida 3
Nashville 4 FINAL(SO)
St. Louis 5
Minnesota 1 FINAL
Calgary 0
Buffalo 2 FINAL
Edmonton 3
Anaheim 3 FINAL
San Jose 6
DePaul 72 FINAL
Providence 83
Michigan State 71 FINAL
Rutgers 51
Boston Univ 67 FINAL
Army 71
Fla Atlantic 61 FINAL
Charlotte 86
Youngstown St 87 FINAL
Detroit 93
East Tenn St 55 FINAL
Furman 59
Saint Louis 60 FINAL
George Mason 68
USC Upstate 78 FINAL
Jacksonville 65
High Point 72 FINAL
Liberty 53
Central Conn St 55 FINAL
Long Island 67
Western Ky 56 FINAL
Louisiana Tech 69
Dayton 64 FINAL
Massachusetts 66
Chattanooga 72 FINAL
Mercer 75
Wofford 58 FINAL
UNC Greensboro 42
Maryland 56 FINAL
Ohio State 80
FIU 56 FINAL
Old Dominion 71
Fair-Dickinson 65 FINAL
Robert Morris 87
Mount St Marys 67 FINAL
St Francis-NY 73
Bryant 68 FINAL
St Francis-PA 75
Northern Ky 75 FINAL
Stetson 85
Coll of Charleston 70 FINAL
Towson 74
Western Carolina 85 FINAL
Va Military 70
Sacred Heart 64 FINAL
Wagner 75
Lipscomb 62 FINAL
Fla Gulf Coast 78
Kennesaw St 67 FINAL
North Florida 86
Appalachian St 46 FINAL
Ga Southern 83
Holy Cross 54 FINAL
Loyola-Maryland 64
Eastern Ill 51 FINAL
UT Martin 81
Jacksonville St 82 FINAL
Belmont 103
Connecticut 58 FINAL
Cincinnati 70
Rider 58 FINAL
Saint Peters 49
SIU Edwardsville 75 FINAL
SE Missouri St 61
Marshall 69 FINAL
Southern Miss 54
Tenn Tech 56 FINAL
Tennessee St 64
Middle Tennessee 58 FINAL
TX-San Antonio 69
Ill-Chicago 65 FINAL
Milwaukee 71
Weber State 67 FINAL
North Dakota 60
Denver 54 FINAL
North Dakota St 61
IUPU-Ft Wayne 66 FINAL
South Dakota 55
Louisiana 85 FINAL
South Alabama 89
Ark-Little Rock 75 FINAL
Arkansas State 65
Georgia State 88 FINAL
Texas-Arlington 74
ULM 58 FINAL
Troy 55
Portland 46 FINAL
Gonzaga 64
Kentucky 69 FINAL
Missouri 53
Eastern Ky 78 FINAL
Murray State 85
UAB 69 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 71
Idaho State 76 FINAL
Northern Colorado 79
UMKC 57 FINAL
Grand Canyon 78
Chicago State 62 FINAL
Utah Valley U 78
Colorado 98 FINAL
USC 94
Cal Poly 57 FINAL
UC Irvine 67
Hawaii 84 FINAL
CS-Northridge 73
Pepperdine 50 FINAL
Pacific 43
Santa Clara 64 FINAL
San Diego 69
Utah 59 FINAL
UCLA 69
UC Santa Barbara 64 FINAL
UC Davis 70
Montana 73 FINAL
Portland State 54
Montana State 59 FINAL
Sacramento St 75
Long Beach State 91 FINAL
Cal State Fullerton 85
Loyola Marymount 54 FINAL
St Marys-CA 68
San Francisco 74 FINAL
BYU 78
California 76 FINAL
Washington St 67
Louisiana 47 FINAL
South Alabama 57
Saint Josephs 51 FINAL
Saint Louis 52
Appalachian St 77 FINAL
Georgia Southern 74
Niagara 58 FINAL
Saint Peters 65
Old Dominion 80 FINAL
FIU 67
Southern Miss 65 FINAL
Marshall 67
Georgia State 45 FINAL
TX-Arlington 57
Ark-Little Rock 69 FINAL
Arkansas State 70
ULM 51 FINAL
Troy 90
Pittsburgh 45 FINAL
(17) Duke 62
(6) Tennessee 73 FINAL
(10) Kentucky 72
(24) Oklahoma 81 FINAL
(14) Texas 84
Nebraska Omaha 59 FINAL
IUPU-Ft Wayne 70
UC-Riverside 68 FINAL
CS-Northridge 56
Army 65 FINAL
Boston U 40
New Orleans 40 FINAL
Nicholls 56
Charlotte 68 FINAL
Florida Atlantic 71
Towson 54 FINAL
Delaware 72
Hofstra 66 FINAL
Northeastern 45
New Hampshire 56 FINAL
Maine 87
Albany 89 FINAL
Vermont 48
Hartford 60 FINAL
Stony Brook 58
UNC-Wilmington 62 FINAL
William & Mary 67
Clemson 62 FINAL
Wake Forest 64
Alabama 54 FINAL
(1) South Carolina 85
(23) Syracuse 58 FINAL
(8) Louisville 78
Missouri 68 FINAL
Florida 52
Iona 66 FINAL
Fairfield 77
Manhattan 38 FINAL
Marist 77
NC State 63 FINAL
Virginia 71
(4) Notre Dame 74 FINAL
Virginia Tech 50
(22) Rutgers 58 FINAL
Purdue 49
(5) Maryland 91 FINAL
Michigan 65
Milwaukee 58 FINAL
Cleveland State 67
Wright State 108 FINAL
Oakland 89
Jacksonville 64 FINAL
USC Upstate 66
North Florida 40 FINAL
Kennesaw St 46
Stetson 62 FINAL
Northern Ky 68
Loyola-Maryland 57 FINAL
Holy Cross 51
Lamar 87 FINAL
Sam Houston St 68
Fla Gulf Coast 71 FINAL
Lipscomb 49
Vanderbilt 44 FINAL
(18) Miss State 69
IUPUI 62 FINAL
Western Ill 73
Abilene Christian 53 FINAL
Houston Baptist 50
Incarnate Word 54 FINAL
TX A&M-CC 63
McNeese State 78 FINAL
SE Louisiana 57
Oral Roberts 46 FINAL
South Dakota St 71
Louisiana Tech 66 FINAL
Western Ky 82
TX-San Antonio 53 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 73
Texas-El Paso 52 FINAL
UAB 67
Auburn 47 FINAL
Arkansas 52
Grand Canyon 65 FINAL
UMKC 59
Illinois 57 FINAL
(15) Nebraska 59
(20) Iowa 102 FINAL
Northwestern 99
Utah Valley U 55 FINAL
Chicago State 60
Green Bay 67 FINAL
Valparaiso 52
Ole Miss 41 FINAL
LSU 70
Portland State 31 FINAL
Montana 72
Sacramento St 64 FINAL
Montana State 91
North Dakota 55 FINAL
Weber State 48
Ohio State 85 FINAL
Wisconsin 73
Northern Colorado 61 FINAL
Idaho State 70
BYU 68 FINAL
San Francisco 63
St Marys-CA 56 FINAL
Loyola Marymount 49
Pacific 63 FINAL
Pepperdine 59
Cal-Irvine 61 FINAL
UC Santa Barbara 58
San Diego 64 FINAL
Santa Clara 61
UC Davis 64 FINAL
Cal Poly 72
Long Beach St 64 FINAL
Hawaii 72

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Which of these teams is the most frustrating to watch right now?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close