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.

Point: Yes.

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.

- Josh

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):

Player Stops Stops/40
Williams 105.5 7.1
Sampson 78.5 6.9
Coleman 59.2 6.2
Welch 55.2 5.1
Au. Hollins 53.2 4.2
Eliason 52.9 8.6
An. Hollins 45.2 5.5
Armelin 37.2 5.7
Ahanmisi 25.4 4.2
Osenieks 20.2 4.2
Ingram 13.8 8.9

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.

- Mike

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3 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (3 Comments)
ClemtheGemfan on 11/2/2012 @ 11:36am EDT Said:

Well, if I am correct Minnesota has been devistated by key injuries for the past couple of seasons, I really don’t think you can read too much into the results of those seasons and try to apply them to this season. With the exception Wally the Gophers are finally healthy, and on paper, with THIS seasons squad in place it looks to be a confrence contender. I don’t place a lot of value in defensive rebounding, (would be nice if the numbers were better though) when the team is one of the top shot blocking squads in the Big Ten and I do beleive the country. I think that this season will be very different than the last two because 1) they are no longer forcing the offense through RSIII, 2) Rodney, and Dre seems to have “turned on” and this may shock some people but 3) I really don’t think this years team will live or die with Trevor. We will see about the rebounding. On paper the gophers has the biggest, and deepest front court in the Big Ten, I think that will be a very good thing for the maroon and gold.

jASON on 11/2/2012 @ 4:30pm EDT Said:

I have to give tremendous credit to the Gophers NIT run. It’s probably hard for a coach to get a team excited about and they beat a lot of bubble teams on their run and gained postseason experience. Mbakwe may take the Big Ten by storm. They also became a very exciting and jump happy team in the NIT tourney and young players emerged. I think they are a conference contender; of course I am biased since I am a gopher fan.

Frank on 11/6/2012 @ 4:59pm EDT Said:

I am on the fence at the moment on what direction this team will go. I truly believe Mbakwe will become a distraction. Already guaranteeing NCAA bid or pay back of scholarship shows he is either very confident or quite naive. He needs to become a team leader by realizing this isn’t his team anymore and there are new leaders emerging. It’s time for Mbakwe to become a real team player and know his role. The Gophers could have thrown in the towel at the end of last year but didn’t. They stepped up to show they were better than everyone tagged them to be. My bias support for the Gophers has me believing the Gophers will be competitive this year and challenge for top 5 Big Ten honors and make some noise in the Big Ten tournament as well as the NCAA Tournament. They could be a single digit NCAA Tournament team. Go Gopher!

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