The Golden Gophers are 5-0 to start the 2010-2011 men’s basketball season, and I couldn’t be happier right now. To start undefeated is one thing, but to beat two major conference opponents including a Final Four participant from the year before, a top-10 team, and 5 teams that all could possibly end up in the NCAA tournament this year is another. Here are some thoughts I have to share about this young season thus far, and some predictions going forward.
1. Settle down Gopher faithful! Settle down!
I’m as excited as the next fan, but I have to keep reminding myself that we’ve seen this before from Tubby Smith-coached Gopher teams. Anyone else remember beating #9 ranked Louisville on a neutral court in December of 2008? Or how about beating #10 ranked and eventual national runner-up Butler last season in November at the 76 Classic? We’ve seen Gopher teams that can have early non-conference success on neutral courts. We tend to sneak up on teams because our program isn’t that prominent. Both of those big wins helped us get selected for the Tournament in March, but they still didn’t translate into success in conference play or victories at the Big Dance (Gophers are 0-3 in postseason tournaments under Coach Smith). Furthermore, this North Caroline team is a pretender top-10 team in my eyes. They lost yesterday to an un-ranked Vanderbilt squad, and they didn’t even make the NCAA tourny last year. They are hype and reputation, which is purely what makes up pre-season college basketball rankings. I was actually more impressed by beating West Virginia on Sunday than the North Carolina win. Now, all of that being said, I do have some reasons to be more optimistic about this past weekend than I just suggested we should be. Last year when the Gophers knocked off Butler, they got content and laid an egg against Portland. Last year when the Gophers played out of their minds for 3 1/2 games in the Big Ten Tournament and proved they should be chosen on Selection Sunday, they got content again and got dismantled in the 2nd half by Ohio State. Both years in the NCAA tournament, it seemed like the Gophers were always just “happy to be there”, instead of believing that they could go on a Sweet 16 run. So that’s totally what I expected out of them when they beat North Carolina Friday. I thought they’d play West Virginia close for a half, and then lose by 15 since they were probably thinking, “We got our 2 wins, including one against a top-10 team. We’ve had fun in Puerto Rico, so let’s not worry about this game.” But that’s not what happened. They didn’t panic when Casey Mitchell was lighting up the scoreboard in the first half. They played their game, and were simply the best team in Puerto Rico this weekend. I’m optimistic that this year will be different, but I still will take a “wait and see” approach to this team. They have to prove it to me in January and February against the Michigan States and Purdues of our conference.
2. MVP: Al Nolen.
Trevor Mbakwe was honored by the people who put on the tournament as MVP, but Al Nolen was snubbed, in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, Trevor was a game-changer, and he had the most consistent numbers to merit the honor. But Al Nolen is clearly the leader of this team when he’s on the court. He and Blake Hoffarber make up our dynamic senior backcourt, and they both are great leaders by example (and great players), but Al stands alone as the alpha-dog when he’s out there. He’s not the scorer that Demetri McCamey and Kalin Lucas are, but he’s a better defender than both of them, and West Virginia had absolutely no answer for him thanks to his quickness. Truck Bryant and Joe Mazzula both were hardly heard from, and when Tubby asked Nolen to stop Casey Mitchell, he did about as good of a job as anyone could hope against possibly the hottest scorer in the nation right now. Al dives to save loose balls, and he uses his quick hands to deflect passes and pick dribblers clean. And even though he’s not a great scorer, he provided offense when he knew his team needed it with a great driving layup and then a huge clutch 3 both against North Carolina, and then hitting all of those free-throws against West Virginia. My only hope is that Al can continue this brilliant play in Big Ten play, where the opponents are all very aware of quickness.
3. Blake Hoffarber, underrated?
It’s hard to believe that a guy that hits so many big shots could be considered underrated, but in my mind, he still kind of is. In this young season Blake has not only hit his share of 3’s and other big shots, but he’s also been passing the ball so well, playing rather good defense, and even filled in with a little back-up point guard duty. Blake is a smart player who sees the floor well for a non-point guard, and even though he lacks great ball-handling skills, he makes up for that with superior passing and great knowledge of Tubby’s offense and where others are going to be. I was impressed with his leadership in that tough North Carolina victory when the Tar Heels had just erased a 5 point deficit, Blake came right back with a big 3, and then an awesome feed down to Mbakwe in the post that set him up for an easy dunk to bring the lead right back up to 5. Blake is an elite outside shooter, and in truth, he isn’t elite at really anything else, but he is a very good player who does so much more than knock down 3’s. I think we’re all going to realize just how valuable he is when next season we realize we don’t have him anymore.
4. New Guys
How do I sum up this group? Mbakwe is a force and takes this team to another level in post-play. Austin Hollins has shown some promise and has a nice-looking jumper. Chip Armelin can occasionally knock down a shot and shows a decent amount of poise. Mo Walker needs to lose a few pounds and then decide to never launch a 3 pointer as long as he’s wearing a Minnesota uniform, but hasn’t been that bad. Maverick has yet to impress me or even allow my blood pressure to settle down to normal levels when he has the ball. I guess what I’m trying to say is: This group intrigues/scares me at the same time. They’re a rather raw group of kids, but I think in a season or 2 Tubby could turn them into basketball players (except Mbakwe, he’s fine). I’m glad we have these guys, but outside of Mbakwe and Hollins, I’m hoping we don’t have to see most of them very often this year. I think Devoe Joseph’s return will take up any of the minutes that Armelin and Maverick were seeing, and even some of Hollins’, but Mo Walker will always need to give the occasional sub for one of our top 3 bigs who get in foul trouble. Let’s hope he matures quickly, because we’ll lean on him the most out of these freshmen.
We got through the hardest part of our non-conference schedule without losing, and so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t finish that part of the schedule 12-0. The game @ St Joseph’s would be the only game I would pause and look at since we’ve never been a great road team under Tubby, but I still say we win it. I’m not gonna go game-by-game, but looking at the Big Ten Schedule, we should be able to get to 12-13 wins as long as we can survive that tough start. Along with a win or two in the Big Tournament and this team is looking at possibly 25 wins which would help us land around a #4 to #6 seed considering how tough the Big Ten is this year and our non-conference success. I know I’ve already mentioned how we all need to settle down, but I just want to be optimistic. It’s more fun. So I’ll say we go 12-6 in Big Ten play, and then grab a #5 seed, win our first game in the Tourny, but then come up just short of the Sweet 16. I hope the Gophers can outperform my somewhat scaled back expectations, but like I said before, I’ll believe it when I see it.