With one game left before the Big Ten season starts, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what this team is capable of and what they need to work on.  Of course, they’ve been physical inside thanks to the addition of Trevor Mbakwe and overachievement by Mo Walker, have been misers on defense, shot the ball pretty well and executed down the stretch during close games.

However, one troubling aspect so far this season has been the MIA-style play by Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson, two players expected to be major contributors and establish leadership positions on the team as two of the longest-tenured players.  On a squad that was expected to utilize size, strength and the ability to bully smaller teams, both Sampson and Iverson haven’t lived up to their ends of the bargain so far this season.

Granted, Sampson hasn’t been awful by means, but I’m not alone in wondering why the performances from the beginning of the year (22 pts, 8 rebounds, 7 blks against WKU) have been so few in far between.  Oftentimes, Sampson almost looks like he doesn’t know what to do with the ball once he gets it on the block.  He has great touch, sure, but he usually settles for shots falling away from the basket instead of using his size to get to the hoop for a higher-percentage shot and even gets horrifically blocked at times by agile forwards.

Further, outside of the Eastern Kentucky contest, he’s looked completely disinterested, and definitely has not had his head in the game at times.  For many stretches this season, he’s found himself on the bench due to foul trouble, a place where he doesn’t do anybody any good.

The polar opposite is true when he’s on the court and focused.  In games where he’s played 29 minutes or more (5), he’s scored in double figures four times.  Unfortunately, that number is less than half of the games the team has played this season.

I accept the fact that the Gophers have gotten to the point where we can harp on problems like poor free-throw shooting or Sampson not playing to his potential, but the fact that he hasn’t been dominating consistently against lower-tier teams is concerning, as is the fact that his performances against some of the better competition (WVU and Virgina) were downright pathetic.  Entering the meat of the Gopher schedule and the games that matter the most, how can we be confident that Sampson can get it done?  We can be confident in the fact that he’s “averaging” 11 ppg, but anyone who has watched the team closely this season knows that is a pretty empty number.

Also found on milk cartons around Dinkytown is Colton Iverson, the third-year junior who is averaging a paltry 16.5 minutes per game and playing with the freshman lineup.  Before the season I thought that we might have trouble determining how to split minutes between Mbakwe, Sampson and Iverson.  Mbakwe has made that decision easy, putting the other two to shame by averaging a double-double and showing what it means to play down low.

Iverson has done his best to imitate that style of play, and he has done a decent job of rebounding so far this season.  His problem continues to be on offense, where he just can’t score.  Almost every team Minnesota has played this season has been undersized, and those games should have served as an opportunity for Iverson to really show what he can do down low.  Unfortunately, he has shown an inability to finish and a propensity to turn the ball over.  He still is just the big guy down low with no touch, and it’s hard to say he’s really improved in his three years of playing with Tubby.

Again, some of us could consider this nit-picky, but with the Big Ten season right about the corner, Blake Hoffarber won’t be open as often as he has been and Devoe Joseph will be forced into some pretty ridiculous shots.  The idea going into the season was that our frontcourt would be the weapon that would keep teams honest and keep the offense balanced, but with two of the three main components underachieving, it’s hard to be super confident that the offense under the basket will be able to handle Big Ten conference play.