2008-09 Minnesota Basketball Preview: #52
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Overall Rank: #52
Conference Rank: #5 Big Ten
2007-08: 20-14, 8-10, 6th
2007-08 postseason: NIT
The Tubby Smith hype seemed a little overblown heading into last season, but the first year coach at Minnesota turned the Golden Gophers into a 20 win team in one season. What can he do with another off-season? The talent level is increasing, the losing mentality is just about completely gone and Coach Smith has a roster that can make a run at the NCAA Tournament.
However, the top three scorers are gone. Lawrence McKenzie averaged 11.8 points and 2.6 assists and was the team’s best long range shooter. The frontcourt lost both starters in forward Dan Coleman and center Spencer Tollackson. Coleman was the better scorer, rebounder and shot blocker of the two, but Tollackson never failed to hustle and clogged the paint with his wide frame.
The obvious need is depth in the frontcourt and Paul Carter, Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson will provide just that. Carter is long and athletic and has some experience playing at the junior college level. Injuries have been a problem lately, but if he can get back to his old form, Carter will be using his 6-8, 195 pound frame around the basket. At 6-10 and 235 pounds, Iverson is the more traditional Coach Smith power forward. Iverson not only has the size, but he has the skills to contribute right away. The same can be said for Ralph Sampson III. The son of the former Virginia and NBA star, Sampson has some quality basketball genes. He also has the size and skills to make a huge impact as a freshman…and with few other options, Sampson and his fellow newcomers will have to make an impact. Even though the big guys will have to contribute, wing Devron Bostick might make the biggest impact this year. The 6-5 Racine, Wisconsin product was the Division I National Junior College Athletic Association’s Player of the Year in 2008 after averaging 18.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists. With that kind of track record, Bostick could immediately step into the starting lineup. In the end, Devoe Joseph might be the best of the bunch. The Canadian shooting guard can flat out shoot. He is also emerging as decent ballhandler and could spend some time running the point in the future.
Who to Watch:
Yet, there is already quite a bit of experience in the backcourt. Lawrence Westbrook and Blake Hoffarber are both quality long range shooters. While Hoffarber is more of a shooter off the bench type of player, Westbrook can also get to the basket and create his own shot. With the absence of McKenzie, it is Westbrook who should emerge as the go-to-scorer out of the backcourt. Al Nolen is likely to join Westbrook in the starting lineup after spending most of last year coming off the bench. The 6-1 point guard had a solid freshman campaign and averaged 3.5 assists and just 1.8 turnovers per game. That is not a bad ratio at all for a freshman in the Big Ten. With Kevin Payton and Jamal Abu-Shamala returning, the Minnesota backcourt has a ton of options.
It is the play of the frontcourt that will decide whether or not this is a team that can reach the NCAA Tournament. Damian Johnson and Jonathan Williams are the only two returning frontcourt players. Last year the two combined to start just nine games, but at least they are upperclassmen. Johnson averaged 7.1 points and ranked second on the team with 4.7 rebounds a year ago. He is also a decent shot blocker and will be relied upon heavily to lead the unit. Williams, a fifth year senior, has plenty of experience and that will be valuable whether he starts or comes in off the bench, but if Sampson is ready to go, Williams will find himself on the sidelines.
Projected Post-season Tournament: NIT
Projected Starting Five:
Al Nolen, Sophomore, Guard, 4.3 points per game
Lawrence Westbrook, Junior, Guard, 8.5 points per game
Devron Bostick, Junior, Guard, DNP last season
Damian Johnson, Junior, Forward, 7.1 points per game
Jonathan Williams, Senior, Center, 3.0 points per game