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And off we go on another adventure with the University of Minnesota Golden Gopher basketball team. There is always something magical about this time of year. March madness is great with so much meaningful basketball crammed in to two short weeks, but I might just prefer the two weeks leading up to the season.

Optimism is boundless, and the possibilities are endless.

When March finally rolls around, we already know too much. Reality has set in. Any hope of a conference title has already been realized or dashed. A chance at a long run in the tournament has been lessened by a bad seed. Even the teams that surprise can only last so long. All but one team goes home unhappy. Now though, every team has a chance at the national title. Every player has a chance to become the talk of the nation.

Boundless optimism was on display Friday night in the most well-attended season opening celebration in recent memory. Both sides of the arena were full, along with half the student section and several rows in the end-zone opposite the student section. It didn’t match the crowds lining up for weeks in Kentucky or the sell-out at the Breslin Center, but this is Minneapolis, and there is plenty to do. A moderately sized and enthusiastic crowd watching relatively meaningless basketball on a Friday night is more than anyone thought they would see 4 years ago. NIT games were more poorly attended than Friday night’s festivities. Enthusiasm is building.

The evening started off with player introductions complete with overwrought video. The theme of the season is apparently “Transforming into the Future” and after watching the video, I’m expecting some sort of robotic shape-shifting to take place at least once during the season. Videos based on critically slammed blockbusters are never a good thing, but at least someone showed enough restraint to avoid “GI Jo(seph)” in which Devoe Joseph obliterates the Big Ten.

Following introductions and warm-ups (in which it became clear that half of Lawrence Westbrook is missing) the evening officially began with the 3-point contest. Ladies and gentleman, Blake Hoffarber is back. Showing no signs of his sophomore slump, the junior shooting guard scored 14 points to take the 3 point shooting contest title. The release was fast, the feet were set, the shot was soft, and the net did not have a chance. The complete scoring was as follows:

Round 1
Devron Bostic 8       Al Nolen 9

Paul Carter 7             Devoe Joseph 6

Blake Hoffarber 10   Damian Johnson 7

Justin Cobbs 11          Lawrence Westbrook 8

Finals

Blake Hoffarber 14          Justin Cobbs 10

Not much can be gleaned from a shooting exhibition as to how the regular season will go, but Cobbs can shoot. When he is on the floor, the defense won’t be able to sag off of him.

By now you have heard and seen more than enough about the slam dunk contest. Needless to say, this team is incredibly athletic and any fast break and momentum opportunities will not be wasted.

The scrimmage, which ended the night, was about as ragged as ragged could be. It was clearly the first official practice, and Tubby Smith seemed tempted to step in and restore some semblance of order. He didn’t, no one got hurt (despite a few welcome to the Big Ten fouls), and everyone left happy.

Some player-by player observations from the scrimmage:

Paul Carter- Much like he did last year in the scrimmage, Carter put on a clinic from the inside and the outside. He scored 10 points in the first half of the scrimmage including two three pointers.

Justin Cobbs– He may still be a bit of a project on the defensive end, but Cobbs is the biggest offensive threat the Gophers have had at the point guard position in years. He doesn’t look or play like a freshman.  He is about as thick as Lawrence Westbrook was last year, but all muscle and with an inch or two height advantage. He can both shoot and take it to the rim, and is fearless without being reckless. Statistically he didn’t shake things up, but he has a presence that all too often was lacking last year.

Blake Hoffarber– The only thing worse than Hoffarber’s shooting last season was Minnesota’s ineptitude on in-bounds plays. Hoffarber came off the picket fence like something out of Hoosiers and drilled a three, yes, off an in-bounds play. If his shooting is indeed back and the rest of his game continues to progress, it will be difficult to keep him off the court.

Al Nolen– The junior point guard had a rough night airballing two three point attempts during the sloppy scrimmage. His main goal this season should be running a successful half court offense, and the informal setting was no place to judge his development in this area.

Trevor Mbakwe- I received a decent grade in high school physics many years ago, and from what I remember, 6’8” 240ish pound people should have a much harder time getting off the ground than someone smaller. Mbakwe clearly didn’t pay attention in physics. If it wasn’t for Rodney Williams, the junior forward would have the best vertical leap on the team. He brings a tenacity around the basket that is desperately needed when the Gophers take on Michigan State.

Devoe Joseph- No one told Devoe Joseph that this was an exhibition. He clearly had a lot invested in his performance, and if anything, tried too hard and suffered because of it. If he brings that attitude to practice, it will pay off during games.

Ralph Sampson– Any weight that Lawrence Westbrook lost must have been injected into the sophomore center. He looks noticeably stronger and on Friday at least, the mid-range jumper was falling.

Damian Johnson– The senior co-captain is back to his old tricks with solid defense and garbage  points around the basket. He may never be a go to offensive force, but every team needs a player that can create opportunities for himself and others, and for the Gophers, Johnson is that player.

Rodney Williams- After stealing the show in the slam dunk contest, his night was far from over. He spent more time on the court during the scrimmage than any of his teammates. It appears that the coaching staff doesn’t quite know what to do with him, and wanted to give him as many minutes with as many people in the hope of finding a place for his considerable athleticism.

Colton Iverson– The sophomore forward also appears to have bulked up. He only participated in the scrimmage (lanky white kids from Yankton usually don’t dunk or shoot well enough to show off) and didn’t get many opportunities in guard dominated action.

Royce White– The freshman forward may be the pick of many to be the freshman of the year in the Big Ten, but it was obvious he has never played against someone like Trevor Mbakwe. He would have done just fine against anyone else. However, Mbakwe’s size, speed, and power were no match for him.

Dominique Dawson– The walk-on doesn’t look like a walk-on. His athletic build seems well suited for molding by the Gopher coaching staff. The pieces aren’t quite put together though, and he should see very limited action this year.

Devron Bostick- The senior guard slipped through the evening without his name touching the notebook, make of that what you will.

Lawrence Westbrook– The arms are the same, but the rest of the senior guard is slim. It will be interesting to see how he navigates the lane in traffic. He won’t run anyone over. Can he slide by them?

Tubby Smith– Hearing the coach mic’ed the entire night was a joy. He obviously has a lot of respect for the players, and at the same time isn’t afraid to use humor to put them in their place.

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