Around 11 p.m. Wednesday, Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe was on the Internet again. He wrote about 30 words on Twitter -- closing with an "LOL" -- and his followers immediately took notice.

Last year, this might have been bad news. But this time, the senior's online words were a rallying call to his basketball teammates to participate in no-shave November -- a widespread movement to raise prostate cancer awareness that is localized in the Gophers' support of coach Tubby Smith's winning bout with the disease.

It was another example of how the 2011-12 Gophers and their most visible faces already seem different.

After all, junior Rodney Williams claims a new confidence and showed it in the exhibition opener. Soft-spoken senior Ralph Sampson III has been front and center at every news conference and media day. Mbakwe is using social media -- the very thing that got him in trouble a season ago -- as a means for gathering his team.

But Gophers fans with high hopes have watched Mbakwe sit out a full season because of legal issues. They've waited for Williams to fulfill his lofty potential. They've shaken their heads as Sampson developed a reputation for being, at times, soft. A team ranked 14th in the nation early last winter lost 10 of its final 11 games. Skeptics still are waiting to be convinced that things really are different. Mbakwe, Williams and Sampson each has something at stake individually this season, just as the team does collectively.

"Oh yeah, I think all of us have something to prove," Mbakwe said. "Because we know we're a lot better than where we ended last season. It was an embarrassment, really, to ourselves, our program and our coaches. We all have that added motivation, you know?"

Williams: Untapped potential

Two years ago, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo saw a skinny freshman and didn't think much of him.

Then he saw him pick up a basketball.

It was apparent then, Izzo said, that Williams could be great. But over the past two seasons, the athleticism and potential haven't yielded major results.

"I think when you have that kind of raw talent, you can kind of get by on that in high school," Izzo said. "Now he needs to be a better player."

That's putting it nicely. Williams is aware that not all observers are so polite. He tries not to read stories that bash him, but people occasionally tag them to his Facebook page.

"I've got to go out and show them that I've been working hard," said Williams, who averaged 6.8 points and 3.5 rebounds a game last season. "And that I am ready to live up to that potential -- because I know I haven't."

This summer, he attended both the LeBron James and the Kevin Durant academies, gaining confidence by going against some of the nation's top players.

"I think sometimes he doesn't realize how good he can be for our team," Mbakwe said. "I think playing against some of those guys showed him that he actually deserved to be there, that he could be one of the best players in the country. ... This year we're going to need him to be one of our best players if we want to make a run for it."

Smith said part of Williams' struggles come from changing positions -- from center in high school to freshman forward, to sophomore shooting guard, to junior wing in college. Smith said Williams lost confidence; at the free-throw line, he shot only 49 percent last season.

In the exhibition opener, Williams went 6-for-6 from the line, a small step forward. But with freshman Joe Coleman and others pushing him for playing time -- and with Smith openly talking of strides Williams needs to take -- the clock is ticking.

"He can't prove anything until he improves, you know?" Smith said. "He's got to be more aggressive."

Sampson: Finding another gear

Michigan has a shooting drill intended to teach its players to shoot more like Sampson.

"It's the old Jack Sikma drill," Michigan coach John Beilein said at Big Ten media day, referring to the former NBA All-Star. "But we say, 'C'mon, I want you to be more like Sampson. Get that ball up higher and quicker and get rid of it.'"

The 6-11 Sampson's shot might be pretty, but his inside presence hasn't always been powerful.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery pointed out Sampson and Mbakwe make a good outside-inside tandem -- but Mbakwe can't always be the only guy in the paint. Other league coaches noted that Sampson has made strides the past three years.

"The one that's been the most consistent for us is Ralph over the last few years," Smith said. "And we need him to step up and do more -- I hate to say do more, but you know, be more aggressive, offensively."

Sampson, who toyed with entering the NBA draft but decided to come back, understands there's work to be done. Some of it is mental.

"Really, I just need to kind of relax and not get so uptight when I play the game," he said. "I want to go back to just having fun with it -- to do what comes naturally and play instinctively."

Mbakwe: Stay drama-free

When Purdue coach Matt Painter was coaching the U.S. national team this summer, he gained a new appreciation for the 6-8, 245-pound Mbakwe.

"They simply couldn't guard him because of his brute strength," said Painter, who considers Mbakwe one of the best players in the country.

Compliments are not rare for Mbakwe now, but reaching this point has been a complicated process. He transferred to Minnesota from Miami Dade junior college in 2009 but sat out the entire season after being arrested for felony assault in Florida (he still maintains his innocence).

Last season, he led the team in points, rebounds and shooting percentage, but he fielded a new off-court blemish when a Facebook message to an ex-girlfriend violated a restraining order.

Big Ten coaches are still in awe over his production in what was essentially his first year of Division I basketball. McCaffery said he thinks Mbakwe -- who this week was named to the Lute Olson Preseason All-America team -- could be an NBA lottery pick and could lead the Gophers to the NCAA tournament. Internally, Smith and Mbakwe believe more steps need to be taken to reach that level.

"First, you've got to avoid the off-court drama," Smith said. "Because he does everything else right. But it's hard to be all you can be when you've got other distractions, all that static going around you. It's tough enough that you're in practice and you're competing ... and if it's important to him to be a good player, then he needs to eliminate some of the other stuff."

Said Mbakwe: "The biggest thing is probably just being a better leader. I don't think I was a good leader last year -- or as good a leader as I could have been."

Smith often talks about how his players need to be, in all respects, a team. There is no doubt, though, that this team is built around three players: Williams, Sampson and Mbakwe.

Having so many young and inexperienced players only solidifies the need for those veterans to be leaders.

"We all feel that way," Mbakwe said. "It's me and Ralph's last year, and we definitely don't want to be on the outside looking in. We want to make a run for the Big Ten championship, and I think we can as long as everybody stays on the same page -- which I think will happen."