Better late than never, it's time for the award-winning Big Ten basketball previews! Rather than alphabetical order like last year, these will instead be in order of projected finish in conference play, from worst to first. That way, the entire internet will be on the edge of their seat for weeks waiting for all the dramatic reveals, and I can win another award.
8th place: Minnesota Golden Gophers
What did they do last year? Collapsed in historic fashion. After an excellent non-conference season (11-1 with wins over North Carolina and West Virginia), they started a solid 5-3 in Big Ten play and appeared on their way to a 5 or 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. But after point guard Al Nolen suffered a season-ending foot injury in mid-January, Minnesota completely fell apart and lost ten of their last eleven games, leaving them at 17-14 (6-12), which wasn't even good enough for the NIT.
Who'd they lose from last year? The aforementioned Nolen has graduated, and he's obviously a huge loss just based on how bad Minnesota was in his absence. Nolen wasn't much of a scorer but he could handle the ball and get the Gophers into their offense and he was probably the Big Ten's best perimeter defender who made life miserable for opposing point guards.
Blake Hoffarber, after what feels like a seven year career in Minneapolis, has finally graduated as well. Hoffarber was among the best pure shooters in college basketball over his career, and while his career ended with a whimper as he struggled to play out of position at point guard in Nolen's absence, he was a solid contributor for the Gophers for four years and will be missed.
Finally, big man Colton Iverson surprisingly transferred to Colorado State after three years as a pretty good back up big man. He averaged 5 points and 5 rebounds in 18 minutes per game last year and would certainly have helped out off the bench this season.
So Minnesota still has most of those really big scary guys in the front court, right? Right. Trevor Mbakwe, who led the Big Ten in rebounding last year, is back for his senior year and should once again dominate Big Ten post players inside. Physically, Mbakwe is a man amongst boys at the college level; even though he doesn't have much in the way of an offensive repertoire he's still very difficult to stop near the basket.
Ralph Sampson III is also back for his senior season, and while Sampson has NBA size at 6'11, 240 pounds, he often doesn't use it to his advantage. He did block 2 shots per game last season, but only averaged 5 rebounds a game in 29 minutes, and spends altogether too much time taking perimeter jump shots instead of taking advantage of his size down on the box. And apparently he's spent his off-season working on his outside shot as he won the team's 3-point shooting contest during Midnight Madness, so he's now become the poor man's Rick Rickert. What a shame.
Then there's junior wing Rodney Williams, who is probably the best athlete in the Big Ten: such a great athlete, in fact, that he was considered a lottery pick at this time last season. Unfortunately, in order to be effective in the NBA (or even the Big Ten), you need skills such as shooting, dribbling, and general court awareness, and Williams doesn't seem to possess any of those skills. If there's ever a Big Ten dunk contest, though, Williams is your man.
What about the guards? This is the big problem. The front court is very good, but there are major questions at guard for Tubby Smith. Three sophomores return from last year: Austin Hollins (26% from three), Chip Armelin (22%) and Maverick Ahanmisi (29%). Tubby tried to mix and match these guys last season after Nolen went down and none of them were particularly effective.
The good news is there are several newcomers who should challenge for playing time. Freshman Andre Hollins (no relation to Austin, this is like a Darnell and Adrian Autry situation) started Minnesota's first exhibition game and had eight assists against no turnovers. Granted, that was against Bemidji State, but it's a solid step in the right direction. Freshman Joe Coleman and JUCO transfer Julian Welch should also get some run.
So what's the verdict on Tubby Smith after four years? I'd have to say he's been a bit of a disappointment given his pedigree. He's still yet to win an NCAA tournament game, and while he's brought in some talent he's struggled to keep that talent on the court; between Royce White getting into legal trouble and transferring to Iowa State before playing a game, Devoe Joseph's series of suspensions before transferring to Oregon in the middle of last season, and Nolen being academically ineligible for the second semester of 2010. The Joseph transfer in particular was a killer last season, as the Gophers desperately needed someone with experience to play point guard after Nolen's injury. It's important for Minnesota to bounce back this season or the natives may start getting a little restless.
When does Northwestern play them? In Minneapolis on January 22nd, and in Evanston on February 18th. These teams have split the season series the past three years with the home team winning every time, expect that trend to continue this year.
Overall record prediction? The non-conference schedule is pretty embarrassing, as it doesn't feature one true road game. The only time Minnesota leaves home is for the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, that features a field full of the worst BCS conference teams in the country and some mid-majors. The only home games they could potentially lose are USC and Virginia Tech, neither of whom figure to be NCAA tournament teams. It's not out of the question for MInnesota to pull a Clemson and run the table through the non-conference schedule and still miss the NCAAs. I'll say they lose one somewhere and go into Big Ten play at 12-1.
In conference play, the back court is going to become a problem; there's just too much youth and not enough talent there. I'll say 7-11 in the conference, good enough for 19-12 overall and an NIT bid.