Nickname picking is not always an easy business. Just ask North Dakota. Back in the days before Native Americans were considered worthy of basic human rights, the powers that be of our northwestern neighbor thought they had the perfect symbol to represent their teams, but them time marched on. Other universities went generic (wildcats), mythical (fighting phoenixes and the like), and some went vaguely Australian, even if few marsupials have traversed the post-industrial wastelands of northeastern Ohio. Then there are some teams that have it too easy. On the Friday after the election, appropriately, the Gophers start Tubby Smith’s sixth season against the American Eagles, out of the Patriot League. Naming the team was easy. Beating a Big Ten team won’t be.
You may remember American Eagle basketball from their brief cameos in the NCAA tournament in 2008 and 2009 when they lost in both years by double digits in the round of 64. Last season they had a respectable record of 20-12 and 10-4 in conference play. Their best win was against mediocre St. Joe’s, and they didn’t come close to any other meaningful wins. That team was led by senior who transferred from major conference schools. This year’s team is led by a failed minor league baseball player, who actually decent at basketball too.
In an alternate reality, American made the NCAA tournament last year because Stephen Lumpkins gave up his baseball dreams in high school, like most people do. Instead American, desperately needing the 6’8″ center and his 13 points and 8 rebounds per game, spent most of the season unable to score inside or control the offensive boards, ranking worse than 300th in both categories. Without muscle inside, the Eagles lived more than they died by the three, ranking 14th in the country in three-point shooting. Two of their most reliable three-point shooters, the aforementioned graduated seniors. Two of this year’s seniors, Daniel Munoz and Blake Jolivette, are both reliable three-point shooters, and could help American hang around if the Gophers let them.
Yes, in year six of the Tubby Smith era we are still writing and fretting about three-point shooting. A basketball team will win a lot of games by shooting only lay-ups and open three-pointers. The Gophers have consistently taken solved the lay-up side of the defensive equation, as one of the top 10 shot blocking teams in the country three of the last five years. Three pointers continue to be too available, too open, too often. Minnesota’s two exhibition opponents shot dozens of three-pointers, both out of necessity, because no other shots were available, and because the Gopher’s left them too open.
The big question during the season opener will be Minnesota’s bigs. Mo Walker looked great in the first exhibition game, and good enough in the second. Trevor Mbakwe doesn’t look ready yet, and it may be several weeks until he resembles his old dominating self. Both Walker, because of his size, and Mbakwe, because of his injury, have mobility issues, and if they are unable to get out on the outside shooters, the Gophers may actually have to try to win a basketball game.
Some final thoughts
- Be excited if Tubby Smith has taken a hint from the NHL lock out and abandoned line-change substitutions. He claimed he would be substituting a player or two at a time, though he did allow that was subject to change if the need arises. I’m pretty sure that need will arise at the under 16:oo time out.
- Be worried if Trevor Mbakwe continues to be the fourth or fifth player off the bench. The Gophers shouldn’t need him during their first few home games, but Duke is only two weeks away.
- Be excited if Austin Hollins knocks down some open jumpers. He is a streaky player whose success seems determined by his confidence, and he hasn’t been confident lately.
- Be worried when American’s threes start to fall, and they will.
Prediction: Season openers are notoriously ugly, so the Gophers won’t run up the score. Minnesota wins 65-50.