It is hard to believe that year five of the Tubby Smith era tips off Thursday night in The Barn.  A bit of optimism, whether justified or not surrounds the program these days, because surely luck will someday be on the side of the Golden Gophers.

Minnesota State, Minnesota’s opening opponent doesn’t draw much interest,unless your a rightfully maligned former beat writer, so we’ll ignore them, and instead focus on three big story lines heading into Thursday night.

1. Whither the freshmen?

There were only two to begin with, but there will be one or none tomorrow night. Wally Ellenson broke his hand in practice and will be out for six or eight weeks. In a round about way this may be a positive. It makes the decision to red shirt him or not easier, and a year on the bench will give him a chance to develop his skills once he heals. The Gophers’ back court was loaded to begin with, so he is not a big loss this year. Charles Buggs also turned an ankle in practice, and is questionable. If you haven’t had a chance to see him play, you may miss out tomorrow night too. His injury does not sound serious at all, and there is not much point in risking further injury in a meaningless game.

2. Big returns
What could be the starting front court by the end of season returns from season ending injuries. Trevor Mbakwe and Maurice Walker both return after knee derailed their seasons. Minnesota’s front court will be an obvious strength if everyone can stay healthy. These exhibition games will be especially important for the big men, to regain their endurance and to shake off any rust.

3. Is Rodney what he needs to be?
At the end of last season Rodney Williams was everything the Gophers always thought he could be. If he hit his stride at the beginning of the Big Ten season, the Gophers probably would have made the NCAA tournament. If he can pick up this season where he left off last season, and keep it up, the Gophers suddenly become a very dangerous team. I’ll be watching his ability to put the ball on the floor and for something resembling a consistent mid-range jumper.