The season feels long over already, and still there is a long wait ahead for the start of the next season.
Nonetheless, a lot has changed from, say, February, when the popular viewpoint was that the Gophers were doomed for This-Year-And-Who-Knows-How-Long-After. The team got it’s act in order, made a run (just when everyone stopped watching) and did some things in getting to the NIT final to spur excitement for the future. Then, with an already-hectic offseason, the look of the program has changed even further. Now that things have seemed to slow down, let’s take a look at where the Gophers are, and where they could go:
THE NEWBIE: Athletic director Joel Maturi is retiring, and now we know VCU’s Norwood Teague is the one to step in to take his place. Teague has spent the last six years at a basketball-centric school and got approved both a renovation to the Ram’s arena annnnnnd … a practice facility. Those things can only spell good news for the Gophers.
THE COMEBACK: What news could be more uplifting than Trevor Mbakwe’s announcement he will return for a sixth year after the NCAA decided to give him another shot in March? The anticipation of the power forward’s return has some fans downright giddy, and has put the Gophers back on the national – What? Yes, the national – grid.
THE DEPARTED: Look around the league. The Gophers might have gotten the best lottery in this department next to the Hoosiers, who keep EVERYONE. The jerseys that won’t be on the court next season? No. 50 – Mr. Ralph Sampson, the same one who didn’t play a minute of the Gophers’ seven postseason games, when they, without a doubt looked the strongest. And No. 23 – Mr. Chip Armelin, who decided to transfer after his minutes shrunk near the end of the season (possibly in anticipation of the Mbakwe scenario?). Armelin finished averaging 5.2 points and 2.1 rebounds.
THE COACHING STOOL: Most likely it’s, um, holding the same rear as it did last season. There was some outrage in the middle of the season, followed by annual calls for coach Tubby Smith’s firing, followed by annual rumors of outside interest in the 21-year vet. But after the dust settled – and it seems mostly settled now – it looks like Smith will be back for 2012-13. The NIT run surely did wonders for his value. Teague seems to like him (they’ve played golf together in the past). And Tubby seems legitimately content in Minnesota.
THE ROOKIES: The Gophers have two incoming freshmen that they hope will fill some eventual holes with sturdy big men (Charles Buggs) and versatile guards/perimeter threats (Wally Ellenson). Both will get some action, but don’t expect either of them to make a huge splash next season – the Gophers are suddenly heavy on those spots and will have some serious lineup decisions to make as it is.
THE LEADERS: Remember last year when Mbakwe went down and all anyone talked about was the utter lack of leadership on that team? Well, something changed in the final weeks. Did something click? Was there a meaningful moment we missed? Who knows how these things happen. In any case, Rodney Williams suddenly took the reins and started to show what he’s always been capable of but never truly exhibited in a consistent way. And like a disease, Andre Hollins seemed to have caught the bug at the same time, launching from a guard at the point to a point guard, from a player in the game to THE player in the game. The improvement was fast, exciting and changes everything going into next year.
THE INSPIRATION: Two-fold. Not sure I could have set up a better motivational ending than the one the Gophers constructed. The late surge, the irrefutable improvement, advancing to the NIT final, those things gave them confidence, and hope. Ending the season with hope, giving the players the belief that they can change things, is always good. But they stopped short of allowing any cockiness to creep in. Far short. No one will try to pretend the NIT was the goal, any goal. And the 24-point creaming by Stanford in the NIT final ensured no player entered the offseason feeling too cool for school. They’ll come back hungry and energized.
THE REMAINING QUESTIONS: For all that’s been solved, there are still things to ponder. Where will the Gophers put Rodney Williams next year with Mbakwe returning? What will the rest of the lineup look like? Will Smith get an extension? Will the idea of a practice facility get revisited with a new AD? What will Mo Walker’s new role be and how will he return from his knee surgery? Those answers will come in time, but the biggest question – whether there will be anything to watch – has already been answered, with a resounding yes.