The Golden Gophers tip-off the fifth season of the Tubby Smith Era on Friday night. For the second season in a row, they’ll start their season against a mid-major team projected to win a conference championship and do some damage in the NCAA tournament. Last year the Gophers held off Wofford. This year, they’ll take on the Bucknell Bisons, the defending Patriot League champion who lost to eventual national champion UCONN in the first round.
Bucknell faces a question familiar to this year’s Gopher team. Who plays point guard? While the Gophers have two or maybe even three options, it isn’t clear who will bring the ball up the floor for the Bison. Darryl Shazer ran last year’s offense admirably even though he wasn’t a tremendous scoring threat averaging only five points per game. He did average 5.4 assists and only 1.5 turnovers per game. With the points that he scored, the more than 10 points his teammates scored off his assists, and a few additional points from getting the ball to teammates who were fouled in the act of shooting, Shazer will leave a huge whole to fill for Bucknell.
The Bison return four starters from last year’s team including Roseville native and all Patriot League center Mike Muscala. The 6’11” and slightly too skinny senior averaged 15 points, seven rebounds, and a block per game. Most of his baskets came from around the basket. He attempted only 11 three pointers last season and only made four of them, but he is an excellent free-throw shooter making nearly 82% from the line. He’ll be Bucknell’s most important player this season, especially since he is the only post-player with significant experience.
While Shazier was the most important perimeter player, his departure did not deplete the back court scoring. Bryson Johnson is a 6’1” three-point specialist who averaged nearly 12 points per game while shooting 45% from the outside. He has been particularly one-dimensional attempting 217 of his 256 field goal attempts from behind the three-point line. Bryan Cohen is a 6’5” guard who averaged seven points per game last season, though his biggest contributions have been on defense. The two-time Patriot League defensive player of the year averaged less than a steal and a block per game, so he must be good at staying with his man even if he doesn’t force a lot of turnovers. Joe Wilman is a 6’6” forward who is not a perimeter threat and doesn’t get to the line often, but is a good free-throw shooter like everyone else on his team.
There are no obvious answers to Bucknell’s point guard question. Ryan Hill, a 6’2” junior seems to be the most logical answer, but he played only six minutes per game last season, and it is far from clear if he is ready for the increased responsibility. If it isn’t him, it’ll be a player 6’5” or taller facing a Gopher defense that has promised to pressure ball handlers up and down the court. If the Gophers can’t control the pace tomorrow, it could be a sign of a long season to come.
Projecting style of play as well as strengths and weaknesses based on last year’s roster can be iffy at best. However, with so much continuity in Bucknell’s roster and coaching staff, things should stay relatively the same. Last year, Bucknell was at it’s best shooting from behind the free throw line and behind the three-point line. They ranked in the top 10 in both areas, but were down right bad inside the three-point line making less than 47% of their two point attempts. Led by Shazer’s skilled ball-handling they ranked 23rd in not committing turnovers. That statistic will undoubtedly be worse this year. Defensively, they didn’t force many turnovers, but excelled at forcing difficult shots. The Gophers will need to take smart shots and make open shots, because Bucknell isn’t going to give up many easy baskets.
The Gophers, of course, have the same big point guard question glaring them in the face. In his press conference today Tubby Smith said that Andre Hollins will probably start at point guard, and there isn’t any reason to believe this won’t be the case. Hollins struggled in the last game as the Gophers seemed to intentionally shy away from running opportunities in the first half to work on their half court offense. In a game that actually matters, I expect the Gophers to play to their strengths which should give Hollins the opportunity to push the ball up the court and attack the basket. Young players especially seem to excel when they are acting and reacting and not thinking about each move that they make. If Hollins struggles again, Julian Welch is fully available and over the ankle injury that hobbled him for the last couple of weeks. Welch played a good but understated game against Augustana, staying in control and knocking down an open three pointer. There are plenty of other questions floating around the program ranging from the continued poor three-point defense to the lack of depth after Welch. If the point guard question isn’t answered, and answered definitively, those other questions won’t have a chance to matter.
Bucknell isn’t a name that jumps off the page to casual basketball fans, but those in the know know that the first game of the season should be a challenging one and will give the Gophers a good measuring stick to start the season. It could also end up being one of the coveted non-conference top 100 RPI wins that are so valuable come tournament time. Without any of the big names on the schedule, no one win will push the Gophers off the bubble in March. They’ll have to beat teams like Bucknell to get back to the dance.