We're good, we're deep, we're healthy, now let's get wild!
Gopher basketball games are certainly few and far between these days. Playing only one game in 19 days can give any college basketball fan a bit of cabin fever, but it’s even more painful when the plug gets pulled on a team that is laying the foundation for a successful season.
We’ve followed the Gophers with keen interest so far this year, tracking down the channel lineup to figure out just where their Battle 4 Atlantis games would be shown, giddy at the destruction of Florida State on the road and pinching ourselves at the AP Poll ascension. But we’re still checking our watches to see what time it is. We’re early to the party and just a little bored and impatient talking to the non-descript guests that have already arrived.
But the wait is just about over. Soon the Gophers will be rubbing shoulders with the Michigan States of the world and revealing their true colors in the bloodbath that is sure to be the 2013 Big Ten conference season. It’s the year we’ve been awaiting for quite a while. Finally, Tubby Smith has his own pieces in place and has them in positions of authority. Things are clicking and the basketball machine appears to be oiled. It’s just time to start the engine.
With the non-conference season all but wrapped up, it seems like a good time to take a step back and see what we’ve got on a broader level. After 13 games we certainly know a lot; we just need to figure the rest out.
No one hurt, suspended or MIA – Maybe this type of statement is inviting some horrible jinx from the college basketball powers that be, but with all of the unplanned and unimaginable transgressions that have plagued the Gophers over the past few years it seems, frankly, unfair that anything along those lines this season would be cruel proof of some higher conspiracy implemented to keep Minnesota college basketball in the doldrums.
But I’m not a conspiracy theorist and really don’t want to become one. The truth is that for the first time in what seems like forever the Gophers are healthy, happy and (administratively) problem free. No one is transferring, no one is walking on crutches, no one is posting videos on YouTube or stealing from department stores. Quite the contrary – things are running smoothly. Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe are the de facto senior leaders, while the rest of the team knows its role and is executing. From a functionality perspective, the Gophers as a team can’t be in any better position than they are now.
That said, winning breeds confidence and camaraderie. And being 12-1 after the non-conference season would cause any team to be all smiles and gumdrops. With increasing challenges right around the corner the team will surely be met with previously unseen obstacles that will test their mettle.
But that is neither here nor there. The current reality is that the Gophers have their pieces in place to play up to their ability and have done so – something that certainly couldn’t be said at this point in past seasons.
Trevor Mbakwe is healthy – Am I inviting too many jinxes here? It’s so natural as a Gopher fan to mute your excitement for a season and expect the worst since it seems to happen so often. But I’ll buck that notion and talk about how impressive and important it is that Mbakwe is not only on his feet, but playing up to his ability as a top-of-the-line Big Ten forward.
One of the biggest, if not THE biggest question of the offseason was if and how Mbakwe would respond to surgery on his ACL. Would he come back weaker? Would we ever see the same Mbakwe again? Would he even come back at all? It was a nerve-fraying offseason in that regard and very little clarity was offered to his recovery and planned playing time. While his time was sporadic early in the season, the glimpses we caught certainly showed a steadily improving, albeit rusty Trevor Mbakwe. But that was to be expected after major knee surgery (a concept Jeff Goodman couldn’t quite grasp). Even so, Mbakwe’s minutes and quality of play improved culminating in a 14-point, 18-rebound performance against NDSU. That game signified that Mbakwe is officially back, which is a significant milestone considering the questions coming into the season. Having Mbakwe “back” (as in, on the court) is one thing, but seeing him play like his old self? That’s an entirely different level of the player we get on the court and a crucial weapon for Minnesota as they open up conference play.
Undetermined frontcourt situation – In a non-conference season full of successes and blowouts there isn’t a whole lot of “bad” to highlight. The Gophers have struggled with the zone a bit against a couple teams, but nothing that has hamstrung them. However, a single problem that has festered all season and quickly came to a head is the devolution of the frontcourt. Now, with Williams and Mbakwe now anchoring the starting post positions the Gophers have one of the strongest frontcourts in the conference. But it’s who comes in after those two that has become a concern.
Elliott Eliason, up until the Lafayette game, filled the starting center position. But outside of a decent game against Florida State, he has been a starter in name only. In the important games like Duke, Memphis and Stanford he saw diminished minutes and far less responsibility. And in the final three games of the non-conference season he accrued 22 minutes total, even failing to appear in the Lafayette game. Eliason has looked overmatched the entire season and, aside from his passing prowess, has been largely ineffective against opposing centers on both ends of the court. That’s the exact opposite development path preferred for a sophomore center.
Couple this with Mo Walker’s inadequacy, who has so far failed to live up to the meager expectations laid out for him before the season, and the backup frontcourt is a messy situation. Walker plays much smaller than his 6-10, 290 lbs. frame would indicate and his minutes this season have reflected exactly what the coaching staff thinks of his current skill set. At this point he is merely a five-minute patch while either Mbakwe or Williams get breathers.
Will this improve going forward? Hopefully. But it’s difficult to be optimistic about the situation based on what we’ve seen when the easiest opponents are now behind us.
Opening slate of conference games – Ready for a rude awakening? Check out the opening slate of conference games that await the Gophers as they open the B1G season. Four top 25 teams in the first five games is not a pretty sight, especially after coming off a non-conference slate full of low-major opponents.
The good news is that we’ll know who the Gophers truly are right away. Based on their recent predisposition to fade during the conference season, fans are rightfully skeptical about the current squad and their ability to produce results. More good news – the Gophers actually had a fairly strong non-conference schedule and passed each test with the exception of the Duke game. Taking down Memphis, Stanford and Florida State is nothing to scoff at.
If the team is all it’s cracked up to be, though, it should be able to wins games at home against Michigan State and on the road against Northwestern. Is that the team we have this year? One that can move above beating just the Nebraskas and Penn States of the world? If we don’t know it already we’ll definitely have a much clearer picture once the final horn sounds on January 17th against Michigan.
Tag(s): Gopher Basketball