The Golden Gophers have a stacked senior class with four seniors. However, as a sure sign of the turmoil that has gripped the basketball program in recent years, only one, Rodney Williams, has played for the team his entire career. On paper, last year’s team had a fair amount of seniority with two seniors and three juniors. Among that group, once again, it was only Williams along with Ralph Sampson III that had played more than a single season with the team. Barring the various catastrophes that often afflict this most cursed of programs, this year’s senior class (or super senior in the case of Trevor Mbakwe) should give the Gophers their most meaningful seniority since Tubby Smith took over as coach.
- Andre Ingram is the most enigmatic member of Minnesota’s senior class. He was recruited as something of a mini-Mbawke, a slightly undersized but overly athletic rebounder capable of pulling down important rebounds and scoring on second chance opportunities. For most of his first season with the Gophers, he didn’t seem capable of catching the ball or making a lay-up. In his defense, he played most of last season with a hip injury, but that still did not seem to explain several games in which he frankly should not have left the bench. Then something strange happened as the season wore on, and especially during the NIT tournament. Suddenly Ingram looked like not only a legitimate Big Ten player, but a reliable back-up or a spot starter that could add value to the team. He scored at least eight points in three of the four NIT games, and had four or more rebounds in every NIT game. He still had his odd moments, missing a dunk in just about every post-season game. With the return of Trevor Mbakwe, Ingram will once again be a back-up. However, if he can build on what he did last year, and without injury woes or the sometimes difficult adjustment from junior college, there will be no reason to groan when he comes off the bench. Don’t be surprised if Ingram scores around four or five points per game with four or five rebounds. In other words, expect Colton Iverson type production without the four or five fouls in four or five minutes.
- Trevor Mbakwe, who graduated from high school in the waning days of the Clinton Administration, will hopefully finish a second full season on the court for the Gophers. After red-shirting a season, playing a season, and being injured for most of a season, this season marks Mbakwe’s fourth year with the team. In his lone complete season with the Gophers, Mbakwe used his strength and athleticism to his advantage, but did not look like much of a basketball player. There wasn’t much touch on his shot – his free throw shooting was dreadful. He simply grabbed rebounds and dunked over the poor souls that happened to be in his way. Last season, at least in the seven games before he blew out his knee, he looked like an honest to god basketball player. There were some nice post-moves, a few base-line jumpers, and he appeared to extend his shooting range to a legitimate 14 or 15 feet, including at the free-throw line where his shooting percentage increased by 10 percentage points. I vaguely remember a dribble drive or two as well. His rebound and defense, thanks to the freaskish athleticism were still there too. After tearing up his knee, the freakish athleticism may be gone, if not for good, at least for the first part of the season. For that reason, Mbakwe will need to rely on the basketball skills he has developed. The rebounding will likely drop off some, and the scoring will too without the extra free-throw attempts that were a byproduct of his athleticism. The nearly automatic double-doubles may be a think of the past, but 10 points and 8 rebounds per game should be reasonable, and with the emergence of Mbakwe’s teammates last season, that level of production should be more than sufficient for the Gophers to have a successful season. Obviously, this is all contingent on two factors. Mbakwe needs to regain his confidence on the court, something that can be more difficult than the physical recovery from a major injury. He also needs to (re)gain an ounce or two of common sense off the court. I look forward to what should be a comically awkward senior night part two, and Trevor Mbakwe needs to stay out of trouble for a full six months for that to happen.
- Julian Welch, the occasionally maligned combo-guard, is in reality the most underrated player on the Gophers and is my pick to have a surprising break out year. Like just about everyone, he battled nagging injuries throughout last season. Perhaps, the most severe injury was to his confidence when he failed to secure a win at Illinois, twice. The missed lay-up and missed free-throw should not diminish what he did for a back court desperately lacking experience. He averaged nearly 10 points per game with nearly three assists and a team leading 44% from behind the three-point line. This off-season, he reportedly lost some weight, which should help his quickness, and may help him be more of a point guard than an undersized shooting guard, which should help him beat defenders off the dribble more often. His biggest contribution though will be behind the three-point line. With Andre Hollins’ ability to get to the basket and front court teammates that will often draw double-teams, Welch should have plenty of opportunities to get his feet set on the wing and fire away. There may not be enough shot attempts to significantly improve his scoring average, but he should be able to get to around 10 points per game in more efficient manner.
- Rodney Williams will finally make the leap we have all been waiting for. I have a grand theory of Rodney Williams. In his freshman year, he didn’t know what to do. In his sophomore season, he knew what to do, but did not know how to do it. Last season, especially once he became more of a post player, he knew what to do and how to do it. He shot fewer three-pointers, used his quickness inside to score on bigger defenders, and finally attacked the basket off the dribble. When he puts it all together, like he did during the NIT, he is dominant. Even with a handful of sub par games, he was the teams’ best player after Mbakwe’s injury, leading the team in scoring, rebounding, and field goal percentage. Rodney Williams appears to have finally mastered the fundamental basketball skills he was so sorely missing his first two seasons with the Gophers. This summer, he finally had the opportunity to work on expanding game. How this will translate on the court is anyone’s guess, but imagine Williams, his hyperathleticism, as a 70% free-throw shooter, with a consistent jumper from 10-15 feet, and the ability to put the ball on the floor. Who could guard him? Who would even try. Fifteen points per game is reasonable. If he improved as much over the summer as he did throughout last season, he would be a first team all-conference player and a lottery pick.