The good folks over at The Buckeye Battlecry, perhaps having realized that their basketball team can play in the post season and their football team can’t, has started their basketball coverage for the season. As part of their season preview, they organized a round table of various blogger types to discuss the upcoming season. You really should go read the whole thing, especially since they wrote nice things about us. Below you’ll our responses to their questions.

Who are the key returning players?
The Tubby Smith era has been marked by unexpected departures. You may remember the suspensions of Al Nolen, Royce White, Trevor Mbakwe, and Devoe Joseph, or the season ending injuries of Al Nolen and Trevor Mbakwe, or maybe the transfers of Royce White, Devoe Joseph, Paul Carter, Colton Iverson, Devoe Joseph, and Chip Armelin.

Oddly enough, this season, nearly everyone of consequence is back, including the reappearance of Trevor Mbakwe in his six season of eligibility. Mbakwe was something of a double-double machine before he tore up his knee last season, and even if he is 90% of the player he was before, he will be one of the better big men in the conference. Mbakwe’s absence led to the emergence of Rodney Williams as a legitimate scoring threat, which in turn spread the floor to give Andre Hollins room to operate. The big three of Wlliams, Mbakwe, and Hollins give the Gophers a very good base to work from. However, the difference between sneaking into the NCAA tournament and making a real run towards a Big Ten title, besides of course avoiding injuries and suspensions, is Julian Welch and Austin Hollins. Both players are solid but streaky on the offensive end. If defenses adjust to shut down the big three, Hollins and Welch should have a lot open outside shots. If they can consistently make open three-pointers, look out.

Who did you lose and what production did you lose with them?
The Gophers lose Ralph Sampson III to graduation and Chip Armelin due to transfer, though referring to them as losses really oversimplifies things. I am something of a Ralph Sampson apologist and thought he got a bad rap because he never lived up to the expectations attached to his name. And sure, he looked a bit like a slightly less elderly, less emotional Greg Oden, but he finished his career with over 1000 points, 500 rebounds, and 200 blocks. Despite impressive statistics, even an apologist has to recognize that the energy level sagged when he was on the floor, and he often failed to make plays that he should have been able to make.

Chip Armelin, for reasons I’ve have failed to grasp, has a small army of apologists who tout him as “exciting!!!” and “a game-changer”. What this too often meant was terrible decisions, lots of contested three-pointers, few assists, and even less defense. He would occasionally have a good game, but the several bad games after that often did more harm than good.

Who are the newcomers and which one will make an immediate impact?
With only two moderately significant departures, there were only two scholarships available. Both Wally Ellenson and Charles Buggs don’t seem likely to have an immediate impact, and one or both may redshirt. Ellenson has an unreal vertical leap, with a lifetime best high-jump of 7’1”. He’ll need to work on his outside shot and ball handling, but you can’t teach athleticism.

Charles Buggs is a lanky combo-forward out of Texas who is something of a mystery, playing in prep school on a roster stocked with top flight talent. He has great length, a good outside shot, and needs to eat about 10 cheeseburgers per day before he is Big Ten ready.

What game during the season do you look to as being the most important for your team?
The Gophers play Michigan State on New Year’s Eve in The Barn in what could be one of those program changing, attention getting wins. The Gophers have a tough non-conference season, playing in the Battle for Atlantis against Duke and at Florida State. If they play well during the non-conference season, a win over a traditional conference power like Michigan State will clearly demonstrate that those other wins were not a fluke. If they drop a few non-conference games, the Michigan State game is the perfect opportunity to gain momentum early in the Big Ten season.

What’s your prediction for the team within the conference and how do you see the conference as a whole this season?
My minimal goals for this season, and they are very much in reach, are for the Gophers to win 10 games in Big Ten play and make the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament. It would be the first NCAA tournament win, that counted at least, since the first Bush administration, and the first winning Big Ten season of the Tubby Smith Era.

In conference play, Indiana would have to be considered the favorite, but all of the top teams in the conference have big questions to answer. Can the Hoosiers care enough about defense to win consistently on the road? Can Michigan find ways to win while looking so bad in the process? Does Wisconsin have anyone to play point guard? Who replaces Draymond Green for Michigan State? Will Trevor Mbakwe be fully recovered for the Gophers? Then you throw in new coaches at Illinois and Nebraska, Purdue rebuilding, Iowa’s possible sleeper season, Northwestern’s eternal quest to make the NCAA tournament, and Tim Frazier’s attempt to be the best player ever on the worst team ever, and it will be an exciting season.

Bold prediction time. Do you see the team making the final four? Defend yourself if you do! Otherwise how will their post season go?
Of course not! This is a team from Minnesota. We have a good quality of life, and pay for it with bad teams. I do think the Gophers will be stress free on selection Sunday, and win their first game in the NCAA tournament, knocking off a 10 or 11 seed or so.