What’s nearly 21 feet tall, 739 pounds, and ready to wreak havoc on the oddly undersized Big Ten? This isn’t a joke in need of a punch line. The Gophers have the best front court in the Big Ten, and it isn’t even that close.
I try to avoid positive hyperbole as much as possible. I am a lifelong Gopher fan, so 22 years after my first Gopher basketball game I’ve learned to embrace my expectations that what can go wrong will go wrong. That attitude served me well last season, as what could have been the best front court in the conference a year ago disappeared in a cloud of suspensions and legal ambiguity. Royce White famously failed reputation resuscitation 101. Trevor Mbakwe, the local Marquette via Miami transfer, was accused of, and ultimately quasi-exonerated in an assault case, but couldn’t play until the case was resolved. In several pre-season publications, there was little debate that the best newcomer in the Big Ten would be a Gopher. They were just torn between White and Mbakwe. Last year featured many memorable moments, but inevitably will be remembered for what it wasn’t, and what was missing.
This year, we can focus on basketball!
Even without Trevor Mbakwe’s return, the Gophers were going to be a load in the front court. Ralph Sampson showed more flashes of pure brilliance, including dominating future NBA bust JaJuan Johnson. Colton Iverson was still rough around the edges and I wouldn’t argue with you if you called him either a brute or a banger, but that tenacity earned him three double digit scoring games in the Big Ten tournament. The additions of Elliott Eliason and Maurice Walker would have given the Gophers just enough depth to keep the Twin Towers on the floor together.
Mbakwe gives the Gophers even more: the fearless, hyper-athletic, tenacious rebounder that will keep physical defenders off of Iverson and taller or quicker defenders away from Sampson, allowing him to operate outside the paint where he seems to be more comfortable.
His mere presence on the court will make the Gophers better, and once he is on the court, he won’t be a slouch. His size and athletic ability should be enough for Dallas Lauderdale type numbers at worst. Realistically, he could average nearly a double-double. Scoring isn’t his strong suit, but three put backs, two free throws, and a basket in transition gets him into double figures.
On the inside a least, there isn’t a Big Ten team that can compete with the Gophers.
Purdue brings back JaJuan Johnson, who we already know can’t handle Sampson. Robbie Hummel will be back after another injury plagued season, but he is more of a very tall guard than the 6’8” forward that he is officially. Besides Hummel and Johnson, no Boilermaker forward averaged more than 1.5 points per game.
Ohio State brings back Lauderdale and brings in super-recruit Jared Sullinger who will be on his way to the NBA after a layover in Columbus. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, NBA bound big men at Ohio State rarely make much of an impact while on campus, as Kosta Koufas and BJ Mullens would kindly like to remind you.
Michigan State can at least compete with the Gophers down low, with Delvon Roe and Draymond Green. But Roe’s chronic injury problems knock him down a rung, and Green struggled last season to get his shot up against the much taller Gopher front line.
John Leuer and Keaton Nankinvil both return for the Badgers, but only Leuer is a presence inside on either end of the court, and like Hummel, it is his ability to draw shorter defenders that make him more dangerous.
The Mikes of Illinois, Davis and Tisdale, each averaged more than 10 points per game, but could also be horribly inconsistent. In their lone game against the Gophers, Tisdale scored six points on 10 shots, and Davis scored 10 points on 11 shots.
Then things get ugly. Northwestern doesn’t have any real post players. Michigan doesn’t return anyone taller than 6’6” and no recruits are taller than 6’9”. Other than Christian Watford, Indiana doesn’t have a forward or center who averaged more than 5 points or 4.1 rebounds per game. Iowa was decimated by transfers. Penn State has bodies, but no one would call David Jackson, Andrew Jones, and Bill Edwards a threatening threesome.
Tubby Smith has said he likes to run his offense inside out. Minnesota’s size, strength, and sheer numbers will give him every chance to establish that inside game. Even if the Gophers don’t end up having the best front court in the conference, it will be good to keep the defense honest. Something that Minnesota’s outside shooters are looking forward to doing.