Is it 2010 all over again for Minnesota?
We’re going to try something new this year. Instead just previewing every team like we usually do, we’ll give the people what they really want—ammunition to win arguments. So for every team, we’ll have both sides of the debate covered. First up, Minnesota.
One underappreciated use for the Internet is its ability to function as an archive. This has good and bad implications for someone who makes predictions. Good, for when you say something smart, but bad, because your mistakes are forever immortalized. Take for example this sentence I wrote about Minnesota in the fall of 2009:
It’s hard to imagine how this team will not make the NCAA Tournament, and frankly, the goal ought to be to contend for a Big Ten championship.
That Minnesota team finished at 9-9 in the Big Ten, and needed a run to the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament in order to make the Dance. So yes, I was wildly wrong. But on paper, it looked like a fine prediction. The Gophers were coming off a 9-9 season, returned 90 percent of the minutes from that team, had a ton of sophomores, and welcomed two top 50 recruits along with Trevor Mbakwe. How does that team fail to improve?
Well, Mbakwe never played. And future first round draft pick Royce White barely did. And yes, that was a big part of the problem. But fundamentally, the real problem was that Minnesota did not rebound. And although Mbakwe is a tremendous rebounder, he doesn’t seem to solve the problem, either. Indeed, it’s like the rest of the team is relieved the big man is there to clean up the glass, so they don’t have to. The fact of the matter is that Tubby’s Minnesota teams have never been very good with defensive rebounds. And after five seasons of eschewing the defensive boards, and topping out with 9-9 conference marks, I think it’s time to acknowledge that this approach simply cannot work in the Big Ten.
So no, I don’t care that Minnesota returns more minutes than anyone else in the Big Ten. Or that it returns the most freshmen (now sophomore) minutes. I don’t care that they add a Player of the Year candidate in a rehabbed Mbakwe. It doesn’t matter to me that Minnesota went all the way to the NIT championship, or that they were better last year than their 6-12 record would indicate.
They don’t rebound. And until that changes, I don’t see them contending for much more than low seeds in the Tournament.
Counterpoint: Not exactly.
I agree that the Gophers will probably never be a great rebounding team under Tubby Smith. He hasn’t had a team finish in the top 100 nationally in defensive rebounding since 2003-04 Kentucky, and his best defensive rebounding Minnesota team–in Mbakwe’s one healthy season–was still in the lower half of the conference. So, we agree on that point.
Where we might not agree is how much that limits Minnesota’s potential. I think the Gophers could do well enough in other areas to have a solid defense. The 2008-09 squad is a good template. Those Gophers led the nation block percentage, held Big Ten opponents to 43 percent shooting on twos, and also coaxed a high turnover percentage. Even with mediocre rebounding, that defense was good enough to carry Minnesota into the NCAA tournament, and that was with a bad offense. If the Gophers can defend at that level while scoring like I think they will, they could be a fringe top 25 team this season.
Another way to look at this is with Stops. Check out Minnesota’s conference-only Stops from last season (departed players in red):
Mbakwe, when healthy, is a Stops monster, and he will blow away the rate posted by Sampson. That exchange alone should improve Minnesota’s defense in a meaningful way. Armelin’s defense, while solid, won’t be hard to replace either, what with sophomores like Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman ready to take his minutes.
Assuming good health, I feel like this will be the best Minnesota team of the Tubby Smith era. It may not have the promise or recruiting excitement of 2010, when Big Ten title contention seemed possible, but the pieces are in place for a single-digit NCAA tournament seed.