Top 68 Team Previews: #43 Fairfield Stags

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By Kevin Mallory

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Minnesota Golden Gophers
Last Season: 17-14 (6-12)
Key Losses: Blake Hoffarber, Al Nolen, Colton Iverson
Head Coach: Tubby Smith

Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Maverick Ahanmisi 6-2 So.
SG: Austin Hollins 6-4 So.
SF: Rodney Williams 6-7 Jr.
PF: Trevor Mbakwe 6-8 Sr.
C: Ralph Sampson III 6-11 Sr.
Key Reserves: Julian Welch 6-3 Jr. SG, Mo Walker 6-10 So. C, Joe Coleman 6-4 Fr. SG, Andre Hollins 6-2 Fr. SG, Andre Ingram 6-7 Jr. PF

The Minnesota Golden Gophers had yet another disappointing season as they finished 9th in the Big Ten and concluded their season with a first round loss to Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament. It was the first time in Tubby Smith's four-year tenure at Minnesota that the Gophers did not win at least one game in the Big Ten tournament.

After starting the season 11-1, the Gophers struggled to keep the momentum going through conference play. In late January, with 10 games remaining in the season and holding a record of 16-5, the Gophers looked like they would be a lock for the NCAA tournament. That all changed after senior leader and point guard Al Nolen went down with a foot injury and was lost for the season. The Gophers stumbled to the finish line as they went just 1-9 in their last 10 games, crushing their chances of an at-large bid.

One of the main reasons of concern for the Minnesota program is the sudden departure of junior Colton Iverson. The 6-foot-10 center unexpectedly decided to leave the program in late March. Iverson played in all 31 games last season and averaged 18 minutes of action per game. Speculation is that his decision to transfer was due to the lack of playing team he was expecting to receive with Mbakwe and Sampson ahead of him on the depth chart. Regardless of the reason, the loss of Iverson is just another setback for the program that has shown just glimpses of glory under Tubby Smith's reign.

For the 2011-12 season, the team will be without Nolen and co-graduate Blake Hoffarber, who holds the Minnesota program record for most games played in a career, with 132. All-Big Ten Second Team standout Trevor Mbakwe will undoubtedly be the go to guy for the Gophers, as the rising senior looks to boost his draft stock in his final season. The power forward averaged 13.9 ppg and 10.5 rpg while shooting over 58 percent from the field. He recorded 19 double-doubles and was a force on defense end with 1.5 blocks per game. He will be relied on heavily again this season as should expect to see 30+ minutes every game.

Fellow senior Ralph Sampson III returns to the team this season after testing the waters and almost entering the NBA Draft. As the only two seniors still on the roster, Sampson and Mbwake should be a formidable frontcourt force together and be able to control the glass against most opponents. Sampson averaged 10.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg and a stellar two blocks per game. Look for him to have a big season, as he will be counted on heavily by Smith to contain the top big men in the conference.

Sophomore Austin Hollins should expect to see a big increase in minutes this year as he should get the majority of starts at the shooting guard position. As the best freshman on the team last season, Hollins appeared in all 31 games and averaged 17 minutes per contest. However, he averaged just under five points per game and only scored in double digits three times. His 1.2 steals per game average was seventh-highest in the Big Ten Conference. This 6-foot-4 pure shooter should be able to knock down at least one or two threes per game for the Golden Gophers as he can help spread the floor against those tough Big Ten defenses. He hasn't shown the ability to create his own shot which is something that prevented him from contributing more on the offensive end last season.

Junior wingman Rodney Williams will most likely start at small forward for the Gophers. As a starter of 28 games last season Williams averaged just 6.8 points per game and 3.5 rebounds per game. He never really found his rhythm as a scorer. The 6-foot-7 Minneapolis native gets up and down the floor well but could really be a threat on the offensive end if he can develop a mid-range game.

On the recruiting front, the Gophers were able to land two players ranked in the top 100 in the country according to both Rivals and ESPN. Joe Coleman, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard from Hopkins, Minn., and Andre Hollins, a 6-foot-2 guard from Memphis, will add some solid depth to the Gophers backcourt. The Gophers were also able to recruit two transfers who are both eligible to play this year. Point guard Julian Welch from UC-Davis and forward Andrew Ingram from Butler Community College are expected to contribute, but their roles are still quite uncertain since they are newcomers to the team.

The Gophers will need huge production out of Mbakwe and Sampson if they are going to finish in the top half of the Big Ten this season. Expect the Gophers to be on the bubble throughout the season, and their performance down the stretch and in the Big Ten tournament could determine whether or not they earn a bid to the NCAA tournament.

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