It’s the eve of the Big Ten conference season.  The Gophers are ranked #13 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll.  Bucky awaits his fate tomorrow evening.  Excitement is in the air.

From The Barn got in touch with Darren “Doogie” Wolfson: 1500 ESPN, StarTribune and KSTP-TV contributor and fellow great Gopher mind, to get his take on what we’ve seen so far this season and what he thinks might await Minnesota as winter unfolds.

FTB: We’ve seen the Gophers take down the likes of North Carolina and West Virginia but also drop a head-scratcher to Virginia at home.  Is this Minnesota team the possible conference championship contender we’d like to think they are or they the same second-tier Big Ten squad we’re accustomed to?

DW: Somewhere in the middle. The Big Ten schedule does them two favors: no trip to Illinois, and no game against Wisconsin at the Barn. But even with those two advantages, I don’t think they’re as good as Ohio State, Illinois, or Michigan State. They are good enough to finish as high as fourth, and with that sort-of finish in the best conference in the country, a five-seed in the NCAA tournament seems like an attainable goal.

FTB: We’re going on four years in Tubby Smith’s Minnesota career, what grade do you give him at this point?

DW: B+. Tubby is iconic, so the bar is instantly raised. By the end of his third year, I thought that he would have at least once NCAA tournament win. I was highly disappointed in their performance against Xavier last season. But they have gotten better in each of his seasons, and this current team is his best to date. The pressure is on this season to win in March.

FTB: My pessimistic side showing through: Why won’t the Gophers achieve what they’re capable of this season?

DW: They lost a lot of close games last year (six losses by five or less points), so what makes us believe that this year will be different? They still don’t make enough free throws, and are struggling to defend the perimeter. As polarizing as Lawrence Westbrook was, he had “onions.” He never passed up the opportunity to take a big shot. Who will take those shots this year? Joseph? Hoffarber (if he can get an open look against good defenders)? That will evolve in the next few weeks when the competition level increases greatly.

FTB: What’s been your favorite thing to watch from this team over the past three seasons?

DW: Tubby’s almost copy-righted defense. They can be relentless at times. Also, we saw guys get better (D. Johnson, Hoffarber, Coleman, etc.) , something that rarely, and maybe never came to fruition under Dan Monson.

FTB: Ralph Sampson III is now in his third year of extensive playing time.  Do you think he’ll ever live up to the expectations many have set for him?

DW: Those expectations were probably unrealistic. Sampson III is a serviceable Big Ten center, but nothing more. He’ll never have the kind of aggression that many of us would like to see. It’s not him. Two-plus years in, it’s hard to know what he’ll contribute on a nightly basis. And based on Tubby’s substitution patterns so far this year, it doesn’t appear as if he knows what Sampson III will give him.

FTB: Before the season there was a debate about who should be the starting point guard between Devoe Joseph and Al Nolen.  What are your thoughts on that question?

DW: I think they can co-exist against certain teams. But Nolen is their best point guard. There are too many possessions when Joseph will take a shot without a pass. It’s a shot he could get with sevens seconds left on the shot clock. Nolen is the better on-ball defender, ball-handler, passer, and can penetrate a defense better. Joseph is the better shooter, and more trust-worthy in the clutch. But give me Nolen as the No. 1 point guard.

FTB: What’s your gut feeling on how this team finishes the season, assuming everyone stays healthy?

DW: 10-8 in the Big Ten, with one, and possibly two NCAA tournament wins. Trevor Mbakwe is a big-time difference-maker, and if Rodney Williams can play like he did against Akron, he will help a ton. The 18 conference games, plus Big Ten tournament should put them in prime position to make some noise in mid-March.

FTB: What do you think about the new 68-team March Madness abomination?

DW: I legitimately haven’t given it a lot of thought. It doesn’t seem like a great change. But the more teams, the better. I wouldn’t be opposed to growing it even more. It’s a cash-cow for the NCAA. It’s must-see TV. Even casual fans, like my dad, are captivated by the tournament.

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