College basketball is a young man’s game. Every year a freshman superstar steals the hearts and minds of even the most casual of fans, and take his team on a whirl wind ride before dashing off to the NBA to pursue fame, fortune, and failed hip-hop careers. For a few very select programs, chasing the top freshman has proven to be a sustainable solution. The rest of the college basketball world, the Gophers included, depends on the maturation of often raw and flawed young players into solid basketball players. Even with more new faces than the typical basketball blogger can remember, a large portion of this year’s success will depend on the returning player whose development will make or break the season.
I’ll take a look at how each of the players performed last year including their successes and the needed areas of improvement, and what to expect as we head into the new season. If you are more interested in the new guys, we have that covered too.
What he did: From a little used third stringer to the occasional starter, no one benefited more from last season’s point guard crisis. He wasn’t a complete disaster, but didn’t show that he could be a reliable Big Ten player, averaging only 2.1 points and just as many turnovers.
What he needs: More than anything, he needs better basketball instincts and quicker decision-making. Ahanmisi is never going to be an athlete, won’t jump out of the gym, and won’t beat many other guards down the court. If he is going to develop into more than a stop-gap measure, he’ll need to do the little things like finding room for an open jumper, making the extra pass, or jumping into a passing lane.
This year’s ceiling: If the scrimmage was a reliable indication of what to expect this season, Ahanmisi could up his playing time to around 15 minutes per game, score five points per game, and improve his assist to turnover ratio to around 1.5 to 1.
This year’s floor: The scrimmage was an aberration, he doesn’t improve, and gets buried deep on the bench behind the plethora of guards, and eventually transfers in search of more playing time.
The prediction: As the lone returning point guard candidate, he’ll get plenty of chances in the non-conference season, but when the roster shakes out and the newcomers grow more comfortable, he’ll be heading towards Kevin Payton territory. That said, he has to be more productive than last season, and should find a way to score an extra basket per game.
What he did: The most exciting of last year’s newcomers showed signs of brilliance slicing through the lane…until he missed lay-up after lay-up. Armelin made 52% of his two point attempts which looks good on paper, but it leaves a lot to be desired when most of those shots came from a few inches from the hoop. Combined with his 56% free-throw shooting, Armelin left simply too many easy points on the front rim.
What he needs: He needs to find a reliable jump-shot, either in the lane or behind the arc, or ideally both. He’ll like never be a great shooter, and doesn’t need to be to contribute. Former Gopher Vincent Grier was an All-Big Ten performer and shot 25% from the three-point line, but he made enough free-throws and took enough shots that were within his range to be truly an elite player. Chip is a long ways from that, but his athleticism and brashness are undeniable, and if channeled successfully, could be very dangerous for the rest of the conference.
This year’s ceiling: The Gophers play up-tempo and Chip gets more chances in the open floor, he makes two of the easy lay-ups that he missed every game last season, makes an extra free-throw or two, and plays enough defense to stay on the floor. Suddenly he is averaging close to 10 points per game and gives the Gophers that 3rd or 4th scorer that every good team needs.
This year’s floor: Tubby’s talk of playing faster is just that, Chip can’t get comfortable in the half-court offense, and loses his spot on the depth chart to Joe Coleman, who is Chip but more skilled and with a better basketball IQ.
The prediction: The free-throws are a little better, the lay-ups are little better, and Chip scores around six points per game, as long as his defense lets him off the bench.
What he did: In one of the more impressive season’s by an individual Gopher in recent memory, Mbakwe took the Big Ten by storm averaging a double-double, becoming one of the top 20 defensive rebounders in the country, and attempting over 100 more free-throws than any of his teammates. The scary thing is he could have been better, with too many missed free-throws and an underdeveloped offensive repertoire.
What he needs: A few more made-free throws and a couple of mid-range jumpers could turn Mbakwe into an NBA lottery pick, if professional basketball ever exists in this country again. Imagine defenders afraid to foul and giving him a little breathing room, and then imagine him knocking down those 1o foot jumpers. Now pull your jaw off the floor.
This year’s ceiling: There is the potential, albeit not that great, that Mbakwe could put up an absolutely monster ceiling. If he improves his free-throw shooting to 75%, which wouldn’t be completely impossible, he’d score an extra point per game. If he makes only one extra-mid range jumper per game, he’ll average another two points per game. Despite his great rebounding, he ranked only 124th on the offensive glass. One more offensive rebound per game, and one extra put-back basket per game, and he’d easily be an All-American with 20 points and around 12 rebounds per game.
This year’s floor: Defenses adjust, and more importantly, the guards can’t find a way to get the ball inside. He puts up good but not great numbers, the free-throws don’t come around, and he averages another double-double but the scoring dips to around 12 points per game.
The prediction: He says he’s been working on his free-throws, and he should have a few more players that can reliably get him the ball, which should be good for 16 points per game. The rebounding is about as good as it will get, but I won’t complain.
What he did: He was definitely intriguing, but not nearly consistent enough to be a solid contributor. He missed way too many open three-pointers despite being touted as a great shooter. He did show signs of becoming a defensive specialist collecting on 4.4% of possessions while committing only 2.5 fouls per 40 minutes.
What he needs: He needs some confidence in his jumper. It doesn’t look pretty, but in high school his herky-jerky shot found the bottom of the net. If defenses found a reason to defend him on the perimeter, he’d have many more opportunities to take the ball to the basket.
This year’s ceiling: The sky really is the limit. He has the athleticism to be good, and knowledge of the game to great. Like the rest of the team, he’ll benefit if the team plays more uptempo, and he should be the starter at the shooting guard spot. If he can improve his shot at all, he could be a double-digit scorer, and his defense makes him the most well-rounded player on the team.
This year’s floor: After a season of no point guards, Tubby relishes his new roster and plays Julian Welch and Andre Hollins at the same time. Rodney Williams starts, and Oto Osenieks gets the majority of minutes filling in at small forward, and Hollins gets lost in the shuffle. His outside shooting is a little better though, and his defense stays solid.
The prediction: The three-point shooting improves modestly, and Tubby decides to play an actual shooting guard in his actual position. Double-digit scoring and continued defense are enough to make Lionel Hollins finally watch his son play.
Ralph Sampson III
What he did: Minnesota’s starting center quietly, of course, put together a solid season averaging 10 points per game, five rebounds, and two blocks per game. For most players this would be considered good enough, but whether it is flashes of brilliance, his genes, or a combination of both, good enough isn’t good enough.
What he needs: A little anger, a little urgency, or a little embarrassment to motivate him to hit the glass harder. Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber were able to average 3.5 rebounds per game, but Sampson couldn’t pull down more than five? Rebounding is all about effort and desire, and those were absent too often. He doesn’t need to scream or yell or do back flips, but he does need to fight for the ball.
This year’s ceiling: All the focus on Mbakwe gives Ralph room in the lane, he finds a passion for basketball, especially with the hopes of an NBA career in danger of slipping by the wayside, and he averages 7 rebounds per game, which shouldn’t be difficult for a 7 footer.
This year’s floor: He likes basketball even less, takes his three-point shooting title from Tubby’s Tip-off too seriously, and spends most of the season floating around the three-point line. No more points, no more rebounds, and a lot of strange outside shots are the result.
The prediction: I’m not expecting anything to miraculously click at this point, and I think we have seen what we get. Sampson has managed to average two additional points every season, and scores about 12 points per game with limited rebounding improvement. He’d end up with 1,000 career points, and lot of people asking what could have been.
What he did: Before he got hurt, he made the most of his size and made most of his shots. His free-throw shooting was bad, but his three-point shooting was good, though both had small sample sizes.
What he needs: He needs health more than anything. It remains unclear when exactly Walker will return, and how productive he will be when he does return.
This year’s ceiling: Coming back from a relative severe injury, he eventually gets back to where he left off and is a solid back-up averaging four points per game and three rebounds per game.
This year’s floor: He doesn’t fully recover during the season, plays some spot minutes, and people start to wonder why he didn’t red-shirt.
The prediction: He gets back to where he left off last season, but takes until early March before can play more than quick bursts.
What he did: He didn’t do all that much, but he showed that he knows what he needs to do. His defense was good, and he looked like he grasped the general idea that needs put the ball on the floor and take the ball to the basket, but he didn’t have the skills to be fully successful.
What he needs: He needs actual basketball skills, and not just generic leaping ability. He doesn’t appear to have learned fundamentals as a younger player, and he’ll continue to struggle until he does.
This year’s ceiling: In the open floor he is dangerous, and he has a break out season with plenty of easy baskets on steals and dunks. An improved mid-range jumper gives him some hope in the half court offense, and he doesn’t look lost.
This year’s floor: More of the same dunks and aimless drifting on offense leads Tubby to play Oto Osenieks, especially with the desperate need for reliable three-point shooting and Williams remains something of a side showed, rolled out for dunk contests and little else.
The prediction: With a full summer of practicing what he actually needs to work on, gets an extra basket per game this season, but is still a year away from coming close to his potential.