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.

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Trevor Mbakwe.

Photo: Tom Olmscheid, Associated Press

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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 opportunity 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."

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