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Once again this season Dylan at UMHoops.com is marshaling the forces of various Big Ten basketball bloggers to offer their thoughts and insights heading into the upcoming basketball season. Tipping things off this season your University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Our preview is below and posted at UMHoops, including game by game predictions, a look at the many new-comers, and some hopefully interesting answers about some other teams and players that will make an impact starting in a few short weeks. Make sure you check out his site early and often as the other previews are posted.

UMHoops: Minnesota had a roller coaster of a season last year and lost two of their top players but the roster still seems to have plenty of talent. What are the expectations in Minnesota at this point?

FTB: Against our collective better judgment, expectations are about as high as last year in the Twin Cities. Everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong last year. If the Gophers are unable to get to the final 32 of the NCAA tournament (calling it the second round would be pretty meaningless now, huh?) the season would be pretty disappointing.

Off court drama, on court squabbles, injuries, academic suspensions, and heart breaking loss after heart breaking loss nearly ruined Minnesota’s season, but they still managed to beat every team ahead of them in the Big Ten standings by the end of the year.

The Gophers should have one of the better starting line-ups in the Big Ten. Devoe Joseph emerged as a real leader and scoring threat during the Big Ten tournament. Rodney Williams should be much better at using his freakish athletic ability for good instead of evil. Al Nolen should be eligible. Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson should still cause all sorts of match-up problems. Throw in Trevor Mbakwe who will finally play, and there will be a plethora of very large individuals at Tubby Smith’s disposal.

UMHoops: There was plenty of roster action in the Twin Cities this summer — breakdown the inbound, outbound, and return traffic for us. Who should we expect to be a major contributor?

FTB:It was not a good summer to try to take a few mind cleansing months away from the blog. The Gophers have experienced as much roster turnover as any Big Ten team, and more than most teams in the country.

Damian Johnson and Lawrence Westbrook graduated, and are now playing overseas. The departure of Johnson will be a big hole to fill. He could wreak havoc on the defensive end, equally skilled at stealing the ball and blocking shots. Westbrook’s departure was the object of much debate. He was the team’s leading scorer, the big shot taker, and easily the most competitive player on the court. He was also reckless at times, occasionally lazy on the defensive end, and not particularly accountable for his actions. He was hardly the perfect senior captain, leading some to argue that in terms of team success, there may be a bit of addition by his subtraction. I’m not prepared to go that far. There will be times when the Gophers need a fearless and acrobatic drive for a basket, and I’m not sure who will fill his shoes in that regard. However, I do expect the team to function much better as a team, with a lot less finger pointing.

INDIANAPOLIS - MARCH 13: Forward Paul Carter #1 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers celebrates after defeating the Purdue Boilermakers 69-42 in the semifinals of the Big Ten Men

Paul Carter left the Gophers to be closer to his family in Chicago while his sister undergoes bone cancer treatment. The last I heard, she was expected to have her leg amputated, and that was a best case scenario. Obviously, there are no hard feelings toward Carter. He was the heart and soul of the team and its spiritual leader. He is doing exactly what a leader should do. I only wish we all could have given him the proper send off he deserves.

Justin Cobbs, a freshman point guard, transferred back home to California. He seemed to be frustrated most of the year with playing time, his teammates, himself, and really everything else. He just never seemed to fit in, and will hopefully be much happier closer to home. His absence on the court will make the back-up point guard situation interesting to say the least, with no obvious replacement.

Royce White left for Iowa State, even though he never really arrived.
I might not be able to identify the players without a program during the first few games this season. There will be nine new Gophers on the court this season.

Trevor Mbakwe isn’t really new, but will finally get to play after a year long investigation into a crime he didn’t commit finally revealed that the Miami District Attorney’s office is skilled at badgering witnesses and corruption, but not at solving crimes. He should start at power forward, with power being the operative word. The Gophers haven’t had a true power forward in years, and Mbakwe will give the Gophers tenacious rebounding and intimidating defense around the basket. Today’s scary thought: Mbakwe has a better vertical than Rodney Williams, by two inches, and outweighs him by 40 pounds.

And now for the freshman in alphabetical order, because there are just so many of them:

Maverick Ahanmisi was recruited to play at Boise State last year but decided to go the prep-school route for the year. He is considered to be an emergency recruit after Cory Joseph decided to go to Texas. Reviews from those who have seen him play have not been good, and he doesn’t seem to be Big Ten ready. There was hope that he would be Al Nolen’s back-up this year at point guard, but that may not be entirely realistic. Only time will tell.

Chip Armelin has the potential to be a real diamond in the rough. The 6’3” guard from Sulpher, Louisiana averaged better than 23 points and 9 rebounds last season, and was also an All-State wide receiver in his first and only season of high school football. He couldn’t decide whether he wanted to play football or basketball in college, and in the process scared away most suitors in both basketball and football. There has been talk that he could be the best of the Gopher freshman. At worst he’ll be an athletic freak who needs time to refine his basketball skills.

Elliat Eliason is the two time player of the year in Nebraska. He is fundamentally sound, extremely intelligent, and from middle of nowhere Nebraska, which means he will probably red-shirt this year. That extra year will give him time bulk up and be ready for the increased level of competition.

Chris Halvorson is a transfer from Valparaiso who will eventually be a walk-on after sitting out a year. At 6’9” he’ll give the Gophers another big body in practice, and maybe something more in a few years.

Austin Hollins is the freshman I am most excited about. His father is Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, so he shouldn’t be as prone to freshman mistakes. He is a long 6’4” with excellent shooting range, can put the ball on the floor, and loves to rebound. Most importantly though is his potential to be the leader on court that has been missing in recent years.

Oto Oseniks was supposed to be Blake Hoffarber’s replacement, but that will have to wait at least a year. He is enrolled at the University of Minnesota but is not yet cleared to play as the NCAA tries to make sense of his transcript, which includes a few years of high school in Latvia and another in prep-school in the states. Hopefully he’ll be available to play next year after a year in good academic standing.

Erik Stark will continue the long tradition of walk-ons from Minnesota’s Iron Range. He was a solid high school point guard and may be able to contribute in a few years.

Maurice Walker holds the distinct honor of being the largest freshman in the Big Ten. He is 6’10” and around 300 pounds, but surprisingly light on his feet. He had double-doubles in two games during Minnesota’s fall Canadian tour. ESPN ranks him as the #9 center in the class of 2010, and he should be able to contribute right away. However, it isn’t clear how much playing time he will actually see with so much size ahead of him on the depth chart.

UMHoops: Minnesota had just the 7th best defense on a per possession basis in the Big Ten last year compared to the 4th best offense despite having arguably the best defender in the conference in Damian Johnson. With Johnson gone, how can Minnesota improve on the defensive side of the ball?

FTB: Minnesota’s defense the last two seasons was pretty simple. Al Nolen would take care of the point guard, and Damian Johnson would take care of the rest. The Gophers were one of the best defending teams in the country through the first half of the 2009-2010 season, but Nolen was declared academically ineligible for second semester, and the defense tanked. The Gophers couldn’t trap anymore because they didn’t have anyone that could stay in front of opposing point guards. Without trapping there were fewer turnovers, and with fewer turnovers there were just too many defensive possessions for the Gophers to handle.

With Nolen returning this year, hopefully for the entire season, Minnesota’s defensive problems should largely take of themselves. The trap should be back in a big way as Trevor Mbakwe is long and fast enough to trap in the corners but will still have enough time to get under the basket to defend. Rodney Williams will also have a year of Tubby Smith’s system under his belt, which bodes well with his length and leaping ability.

The real key to the defense may ultimately be defensive rebounding. Last year the Gophers ranked #143 in the country in limiting opponent offensive rebounds. All too often the Gophers would try to block shots and in the process take themselves out of good rebounding position. Damian Johnson was the chief perpetrator. Trevor Mbakwe could lead the Big Ten in rebounding, and should limit the second chances of the opponents. Maurice Walker, at least when he is on the floor, is just so wide that there won’t be enough room around the basket for easy second chances.

UMHoops: Who are the likely starters for the Gophers this year? Tubby Smith has leaned heavily on his bench since he arrived at Minnesota, will we see this again this year?

FTB: Despite the roster turnover, there will still be many familiar faces who will get the majority of the playing time, but starters won’t necessarily get the most minutes. Ralph Sampson III should start at center. Colton Iverson will start at what can best be described as second center for the first few games, but Trevor Mbakwe will eventually slide in to start at power forward. Blake Hoffarber will start at small forward/ third guard, but Rodney Williams will get plenty of minutes against bigger and more athletic teams. Devoe Joseph should start at shooting guard, especially after his break out performances filling in for then suspended Al Nolen. Al Nolen will probably start at point guard. However, depending on Tubby’s feelings about Nolen, it is entirely possible that Nolen will come off the bench. In that case, Joseph will start at point guard and Hoffarber will start at shooting guard.

What I am really trying to say is that there are a lot of moving pieces in the starting line-up, but the top seven of the rotation will get the vast majority of the minutes, with only Walker, Armelin, and Hollins with much of an opportunity for meaningful playing time. The days of a ten deep rotation should be on hiatus for at least this year.

UMHoops: Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson took a lot of shots in Minnesota’s offense which means there will be plenty of shots available this year. What player will benefit most from an expanded role in the offense?

FTB: Add Devoe Joseph to the list of candidates for the break out player of the year in the Big Ten. Just before the Indiana road game last year it became obvious that Al Nolen would not be finishing the season with the team. In the Big Ten games before that Indiana game, Joseph maxed out at 12 points in 19 minutes at Iowa. From the Indiana game on, he played 26 minutes or more in every game except two, blow out wins at home against Indiana and against Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament. In the final 12 games of the season, he scored nine or more points in all but two games, which is pretty impressive considering that he average only 9.4 points throughout the season. Joseph showed that he can be a consistent double digit scorer at the end of last season, and there is no reason he can’t continue last year’s success.

UMHoops: What are the highlights of Minnesota’s schedule? Any early litmus tests this year?

FTB: The Gophers have the toughest non-conference schedule in the Big Ten in terms of last season’s final RPI rankings. The Gophers face plenty of solid mid-majors like Wofford, Siena, Cornell, and Akron. No real big names show up on the schedule until the Puerto Rico tip-off where they will face some combination of Western Kentucky, Nebraska, Hofstra, Davidson, Vanderbilt, North Carolina, and West Virginia. Coming back from San Juan with at least one win over Vanderbilt, North Carolina, or West Virginia will put the Gophers in excellent position to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the third straight season. A rough trip to the tropics could doom the season, especially with the strength of the Big Ten this season.

UMHoops: Record prediction? Conference and overall.
FTB: Why not go game by game?
Wofford: Win
Siena: Win
Western Kentucky: Win
North Carolina: Win
West Virgina: Loss
North Dakota State: Win
Virginia: Win
@ St Joe’s: Win
Eastern Kentucky: Win
Akron: Win
South Dakota State: Win
@Wisconsin: Win
@ Michigan State: Loss
Indiana: Win
@Ohio State: Loss
Purdue: Loss
Iowa: Win
@Michigan: Win…finally
Northwestern: Win
@Purdue: Loss
@Indiana: Win
Ohio State: Win
Illinois: Win
@Iowa: Win
@ Penn State: Win
Michigan: Win…finally
@Northwestern: Loss
Penn State: Win

By my calculations, that is a conference record of 12-6 and an overall record of 26-7. However, after the last two seasons, I take no responsibility for any predictions for the two Michigan games, and I’m not exactly looking forward to those two games either.

UMHoops: Most feared player in the conference?
FTB: Kalin Lucas, at some point, will hit a shot and absolutely ruin some poor team’s season. I just hope it isn’t the Gophers.

UMHoops: Most improved player?
FTB: Durrel Summers seems poised to absolutely explode. If he isn’t one of the conference scoring leaders I’ll be shocked. Drew Crawford and Maurice Creek should also have special seasons.

UMHoops: Projected conference champs?
FTB: If Robbie Hummel comes back healthy and ready, Purdue might be impossible to beat. Michigan State will also be in contention until the very end.

UMHoops: Toughest place to play in the Big Ten?
FTB: I might be taking a slightly different angle on this. I could tell you the toughest place to win, which would have to come down to some combination of Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State, Purdue, and Ohio State. You’ll notice that those are also the best teams in the Big Ten the last several years, and they would also be the most difficult teams to play on a neutral court. I wouldn’t know how to begin to separate whether it is tough to beat those teams on the road because they are tough, or they are a tough place to play. What I do know if that the Northwestern Wildcat’s always seem to knock off one or more of the best team’s in the conference at Welsh-Ryan Arena, and are hardly intimidating when they play on the road. Even though Welsh-Ryan is tiny, rarely full (with Wildcat fans at least) and sort of looks run down, at least on TV, strange and scary things happen there far too often for any team to want to play there.

UMHoops: Do you think your team wins their Big Ten/ACC challenge game?
FTB:They better.

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