|Rodney Williams finishing a 360-degree dunk into what is probably the correct hoop.|
The Minnesota Golden Gophers men's basketball squads have a recent history of hot starts in the non-conference portion of their schedules during Tubby Smith's tenure as coach. Last year's team started 12-1 but could only muster an NIT berth after a 6-12 Big Ten campaign. The 2010-11 squad also romped through their early season schedule, going 11-1 with wins over North Carolina and West Virginia, but Al Nolen's broken foot derailed that team's chance at postseason success. Also, let's not forget the 16-1 start to the 2008-09 season that included a neutral-court win over 9th-ranked Louisville but ended in a 1st round thud in the NCAA Tournament at the hands of A.J. Abrams and Dexter Pittman.
This year's Gophers have already notched wins over several ranked or major conference foes, including Memphis, Stanford, and Florida State, and their one defeat was at the hands of the nation's number-two team, the Dookies. Through 11 games, they were among the nation's top 50 Division I teams in points, rebounds, and assists per game and in field goal percentage. Before last night's victory over North Dakota State, advanced statistics guru Ken Pomeroy had Minnesota ranked 11th nationally in offensive efficiency and 14th in defensive efficiency. And ESPN's resident bracketologist Joe Lunardi slotted the Gophers as a three-seed in the bracket he released Tuesday.
Lest we allow our heads to swell too largely prior to the inevitable knee blowout/mysterious neck injury/shady off-court incident, is this a team on which Minnesota basketball fans should start investing inordinate amounts of time and energy? Or, much like for Champ Kind with his dear friend, the disgraced Ron Burgundy, when the Gophers leave (the limelight seemingly every season after drowning in a wave of defeats), was the hurt so deep that you don't know if you can go through another potential train wreck of a second half to the season?
Well, News Team, I believe it's time to assemble once again.
|Mbakwe, Coleman, and The 'Dre.|
Once more, the Gophers have romped through the non-conference two-fifths of their itinerary and have picked up some quality victories as they stare down the brutal gauntlet that is the upcoming Big Ten schedule. With a three-guard starting lineup and a bruising game-changer of a sixth man in Trevor Mbakwe, this Gophers team has the depth, the defensive tenacity, and the scoring variety to be a factor throughout this college basketball season.
This team has operated thus far with an offensive fluidity that was largely absent in Tubby's transition-dependent first five seasons as Gophers coach. This team has guys who can slash with the ball, guys who make savvy cuts to the rim and off of perimeter screens at opportune times, and guys who corral all kinds of offensive boards at a rate of 15.5 per game, creating more possessions for the slashers to slash and the cutters to cut. And this team also possesses the length and muscle to protect and defend the rim as well as the quickness and active hands to account for other teams' perimeter play.
The Big Ten is ridiculously loaded this season, with five of its twelve teams currently in the top 15 of the AP poll. Minnesota came in at 13th this week and will play six of their 18 conference games against those other four teams--two against the top-ranked Hoosiers and Illinois, and one apiece against Michigan and Ohio State. They will also have two match-ups each against Bo Ryan's Badgers, the always tricky Northwestern, and perennial Gopher-drubbers Michigan State.
But so far, the Gophers have played as the proverbial sum that is greater than its parts; this is a trend that must persist in order for Minnesota to attain their first winning conference record since 2004-05. Some of these individual parts--and these eight components specifically--have particularly impressed in this season's early stages:
|Andre Hollins scoring two of his 41 points vs. Memphis.|
2. Rodney Williams' hydraulics: Rodney’s been every bit the leader and stabilizing presence that you want to see out of the senior co-captain. He’s just a tenth of a point behind Andre for leader in points per game and has scored between 12 and 19 points in every game except one this year. He’s shooting a robust 55.5% from the field so far, and he leads the team in blocks as the first lieutenant of the Gophers’ SWAT team of rim protectors. We always knew he had trampoline springs for leg muscles, but he has thrown down some mind-blowing jams already this season. The full-extension put-back dunk that opened the Florida State contest and the 360 breakaway slam he threw down last night against the Bison are the first two that come to mind.
3. Trevor Mbakwe's butt: Much has been made about Trevor’s struggles to get comfortable with his still-healing knee after last year’s ACL blowout, and one national writer called the former All-Big Ten player “sad to watch” as he has tried rounding back into top form in this season’s early stages. But Trevor is still averaging 9.2 points and has been doing the booty work, as my high school coach never said, leading the team with 7.4 boards a game. And he’s doing this in just over 18 minutes per game; if we extrapolate his numbers to the 30 mpg he played each of his last two seasons, he'd be averaging 15 and 12. His big two-handed put-back slam last night sure wasn’t “sad to watch;” neither was seeing him wrangle a career-high 18 boards.
|Austin Hollins (L), impressed by a real rim-rocker of a Rodney belch.|
4. Austin Hollins' jazz hands: I was surprised that Lionel’s kid was already a junior, as I was hoping he and Dre would have come in and would leave the program as a unit. Andre plays with the precision of an assassin, but Austin is much more of an entertainer--especially on defense, with those active hands swiping 2.4 balls per game, good for 40th in the country. Also, despite some poor shooting performances early in the season, Austin is the team’s third-leading scorer at 11.2 points per game and possesses the team’s best assist-to-turnover ratio currently at 2.0.
5. Joe Coleman's gray matter: The Hopkins product is scoring the quietest 10.5 points per game in recent memory (If you were wondering, Walter Bond scored the loudest 10.5 points per game in school history back in 1989-90). He had scored in double digits in five straight games before the Bison contest. Joe's been the kind of sneaky guy whose back cuts and putbacks function to increase leads from four points to nine and provide some separation from some of these lesser opponents. And he's usually great in defensive rotation. Sneaky, brainy things like that.
|Dork Nowitzki (L).|
6. Elliot Eliason's mouth and its many grunted utterances: Tony, Silk and I have a couple nicknames for Elliot; our favorite two are Dork Nowitzki and The Dork Knight. In games like last night’s (zero points, zero rebounds, three fouls in seven minutes), these morph into screams of Dammit Dork! But there’s no denying that Eliason has been the definition of a banger in the post for the Gophers in several games, as the various photos snapped of his face in grunty, yell-y positions can attest. His 10 rebound game (including five o-boards) against the Seminoles were invaluable to the Gophers’ controlling that game, and he has multiple blocks in five of twelve games this season.
7. Maverick Ahanmisi's irrational confidence: Maverick is not a great player by any means. But based on his haircuts, big-play defense and reckless runs to the rim, it’s easy to ascertain that Mav’s got SWAGGER. He has the attitude of a guy that plays triple the minutes and scores triple the points that he's averaged this year (11.0 minutes and 4.8 points, respectively), which helps catalyze the action during the second unit's time on the court. The quintessential Maverick moment happened last night, when Ahanmisi stole a ball, made a nice move to lose a guy on a coast-to-coast drive...and then threw up an awful shot that missed everything. I do miss the Mavhawk.
|"Diabetes." --Tubby Smith|
8. Tubby Smith's mustache: Reports have indicated that Tubby’s wife hates the fuzzy mouse currently residing on his upper lip. That sucks for Donna. But the mustache has served as a symbol of a more diplomatic and jovial Orlando Smith this year. In the tradition of other neighborly, comforting mustache growers like Tom Selleck and Wilford Brimley, I like to think that whenever Tubby starts to get a bit perturbed at a Mo Walker dribbling attempt or another renegade Maverick drive to the tin, he just rests his index finger on that flavor saver for a second and thinks a happy thought instead of going straight to the death stare. And that attitude change has helped engender a looser, more convivial squad this season.