Defying the expectations of those who expected the Mbakwe-less Gophers to come out flatter than normal against a decent Virginia Tech squad , Minnesota pulled off a thrilling 58-55 victory in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and raise the eyebrows of the many who gave them little chance for survival.
Inspired 2nd half play hasn’t been something the Gophers have been short of this year and we’ve seen comebacks against DePaul and Indiana State. The performance against the Hokies was no exception. Whether or not the on-court execution is a mirage remains to be seen, but we were at least shown last night that it CAN be done with this squad. And heart can get a team quite far in college basketball.
That said, the Gophers have several story lines that warrant discussion now that Mbakwe has left a mammoth void in the lineup:
Will Rodney Williams excel now that he’s in the 4-spot?
Let’s face it: Rodney Williams can’t shoot. It’s not a knock against his game, but he just isn’t a shooter, just like Colton Iverson wasn’t a shooter. Unfortunately, if you’re playing small forward teams have to at least respect the fact that you can pull up on the court and make them pay. Williams doesn’t have that weapon and opponents know it. But he does have incredible athletic ability and a bevy of other weapons that give him an advantage over almost anyone on the court; they just have to be utilized closer to the basket. This is why Williams has an excellent opportunity to prove that the power forward position is a better fit for him offensively.
Williams has been inconsistent on the scoring end for much of his career as a Gopher, which has been frustrating to watch. Is this due to him playing out of position at small forward? The position, by nature, is fairly flexible and contains elements that utilize both backcourt and frontcourt skills. One take on Williams’ inconsistency could be the fact that he just doesn’t have the offensive prowess to function further from the basket, leading to many head-scratching no-shows on offense. However, Rodney is a quick, physical and high-flying player. Putting him closer to the basket where he can battle for rebounds and attempt much higher-percentage shots can only mean good things for his game. His 14-point, 8-rebound performance as a PF against Virginia Tech is a good starting point. Now, about that free throw shooting….
Is Julian Welch the answer at PG?
Losing Al Nolen last year was a painful reminder of how important a reliable point guard is to the success of the team. One of the major questions heading into this season was who would handle the PG duties between Welch, Mav Ahanmisi, Dre Hollins, etc. While each has been given a chance to prove their worth, Welch has stood head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to handling the offense. In fact, Welch has been one of the most pleasant surprises on the team so far this season averaging 8.4 ppg and 2.1 apg through eight games and leading the team in scoring on more than one occasion.
Welch already seems to have the confidence that is required of a team leader. He’s the guy youwant to have the ball in the closing seconds because you trust him to get the job done. It’s a small sample size so far, but from what we’ve seen Welch has the chance to be a major impact player for the Gophers over the next couple seasons. He’s already hit clutch free throws and no doubt wanted the ball in the final possessions against the Hokies en route to closing it out. Welch isn’t a true point guard by definition, but his IQ on the court and clutch execution give him the ability to be the rock that a young team like Minnesota needs. Which leads to the next story line…
Will Ralph Sampson III ever step up and be a leader?
Maybe it’s a good thing that Sampson is stuck on the bench with an ankle injury during the most tumultuous time of the season. The only eligible senior left on the team, Sampson is currently incapable of leading the suddenly veteran-less Gophers into the post-Mbakwe era on the court. Are the young guys better off letting leaders develop organically amongst themselves now that there is a vacuum in veteran presence or leaning on someone who has already seen his share of adversity? It’s a tough question to answer.
Honestly, I’d much rather have someone like Austin Hollins or Julian Welch take the reins of the team, become a vocal leader and bring court intensity that we can bank on for more than one season. In a season with suddenly-reduced expectations, we’ll want as much continuity going into future seasons as possible, and Sampson does not fit that mold. The truth is Ralph is done after this season, meaning the Gophers would need to find another leader next season if Ralph were to somehow step up and raise his hand. Do we even expect him to do that?
Sampson has drawn the ire of many for his casual, almost aloof attitude on the court and lack of identifiable leadership. We can only surmise about his off-court presence with the team but, from what we can tell in person, his on-court presence is always “business as usual.” Few fist pumps, no noise, no palpable energy. Sure, Sampson is a very important player for the team and his defensive capabilities cannot be understated. But from a leadership perspective he should be given an F. Mbakwe has leadership qualities that you can even feel from the bench. He gets guys excited and allows others to feed off his energy. Sampson does not have that quality. That said, let’s let the kids figure out who they want their leader to be and not automatically anoint Ralph as the de facto face of the team.
What do we really have in Elliott Eliason?
Eliason’s performance against VT got people excited. He looked pretty confident on offense, played up to his size and had a good game overall. Now that Mbakwe is out Eliason has an incredible opportunity to not only show us what he’s capable of, but to gain invaluable game experience where he wouldn’t have before. Eliason is expected to shoulder a big load of the frontcourt down the road, but no one expected him to be thrust into a starter’s role this early in his career. And as long as Sampson is out with an ankle injury Eliason will be the team’s starting center. It’ll be exciting to see him grow as a player as soon as this season and get a feel for what to expect in the future. Eliason was one of Tubby’s big recruits a couple years ago and it’s critical for the overall success of the team to have him succeed down low. A former Nebraska Mr. Basketball, Eliason certainly has the skills and credentials at his disposal to get the job done and it will be fun to see him mature on the court.