The Gophers begin practicing Monday for an exhibition trip to Vancouver, where they will play three games next week. Junior combo guard Devoe Joseph will not participate in the exhibitions due to a quad/knee injury that he sustained while playing with the Canadian national team this summer. Freshman forward Oto Osenieks hasn't been cleared by the NCAA to compete this season so he won't travel with the squad, either.

But recently reinstated power forward Trevor Mbakwe will make the trip.

For Tubby Smith, the early start to the 2010-11 season feels like a fresh one.

Few coaches endured the amount of drama that beset him and his program last year. His father passed away in October. Legal problems sidelined two of his top recruits. His starting point guard was academically ineligible for the bulk of the Big Ten season.

Players transferred. Star prospect Cory Joseph signed with Texas. And in May, a jury granted former Gophers assistant Jimmy Williams $1.25 million and ruled that Smith negligently misrepresented his authority when he offered him a job in 2007.

In June, Smith went to Africa with his wife and family friends, who have adopted a village in Kenya and Tanzania. His wife makes the trip every year, but Smith never had the time to join her in past years due to all of the summer recruiting demands.

He called his journey life-changing during a recent interview with the Star Tribune. He also answered questions about the upcoming season.

How was the summer trip to Africa?

"It was great. It’s a spiritual bond there. … Kenya was one of the places along with Tanzania, so that's where I was. What happens is my wife has been going over there for a few years with some folks from Kentucky and they adopted this village so there's a lot of orphaned kids over there. ... So they sponsor a lot of these kids. It's really something special.

"And then, we had a chance to go on a safari. That was their way of getting me to go. That was special. We saw all the animals. This place called [Ngorongoro] crater in Tanzania. ... This crater on this volcano that's been extinct for millions of years ... down in that there's a jungle in there. There's all types of vegetation. ... It was amazing. The place we stayed, I woke up the first morning walked out there and there's a zebra grazing out there in the yard."

"It was a tough year from the standpoint of having to go through the trial and some of the distractions we went through this year. But it was just what the doctor ordered. I came back with a renewed spirit. How well do I have it here? How good do we have it? Too good to be honest with you. These people, they have nothing. Dirt floors, they're sleeping on nothing. They make something out of nothing. They eat off the land ... it's not like they got a refrigerator there. The way those folks live and how they make do, it's remarkable."

As you prepare for the 2010-11 season, what are your expectations for your freshman class? 

"I’m really impressed … just watching them work out now. They’re kids, you know, who are going to come in and do the right thing."

What's Oto Osenieks' status?

"He hasn’t made it in yet because of the NCAA Clearinghouse. It’s going to be awhile. They had enough for him to be on scholarship … but they still have questions."

After the way Devoe Joseph, Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson stepped up down the stretch for the Gophers, what kind of production do you anticipate from the trio this season? 

"I’m high on those three guys and even Rodney [Williams]. He's the key. Devoe really stretches the defense. Al [Nolen] is back eligible now. I expect him to be in the mix [at point guard] also. But we need to get bigger. 

"Right now, [I'd start] Ralph, Colton, Devoe, Blake [Hoffarber] and probably, Rodney. We had issues with [size] all the time."

Your goal is to win a Big Ten title. In your fourth year with the program, does this team have what it takes to contend for the conference crown? 

"No question about it. Rebounding has been our Achilles’ heel. I'd like to see [Sampson and Iverson] average eight rebounds per game. ... That's going to be a big boost. We need Rodney on the boards. He could be our leading rebounder."