Minnesota MBB Review
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Big Ten Preview
Teams, Part One
by John Gasaway
What Minnesota did well: Mere programmatic survival.
It may seem hard to believe, but Minnesota is just two seasons removed from a 10-6 conference record and an NCAA tournament berth. Then again those glory days, relatively speaking, really do seem like a long time ago: the Gophers went 5-11 in-conference in 2006 and then lost five of their first seven games coming out of the gate last November. The day after Minnesota lost by 22 on its home floor to eventual NIT runner-up Clemson, head coach Dan Monson was shown the door and assistant Jim Molinari was named as his replacement on an interim basis. Molinari's men limped to a 3-13 record in the Big Ten and Tubby Smith was introduced as the new coach at a press conference in March.
What we learned in 2007: There are tough coaching gigs, even in the power conferences.
Until now, it hasn't been entirely clear what the template for success would look like at Minnesota, a team not particularly favored by either geography or tradition when it comes to recruiting high-school basketball talent. Smith is already making the right noises about keeping in-state talent "home," of course, and not without reason. Twin Cities product Cole Aldrich, to take one example, was a McDonald's All-American last year and will be a freshman at Kansas this year. Whether the state could truly produce enough talent to field an NCAA tournament team year-in and year-out is an open question. That's why Smith is already working hard to bring in the out-of-state talent. He recently landed a verbal commitment from Ralph Sampson III, a 6'11" big man from greater Atlanta.
If Smith can get quality recruits to come to Minneapolis, hiring him will turn out to have been nothing less than a coup for Minnesota AD Joel Maturi. Kentucky fans may have been saying good riddance, but Smith has coached a D-I national championship team, making him a member of an elite fraternity that includes just Smith and Tom Izzo among Big Ten coaches. Now he's chosen to take on the challenge at Williams Arena. If someone's going to make something of this program in the near term, Smith's as good a bet as any.
What's in store for 2008: The most famous Gopher this year is likely to be freshman shooting guard Blake Hoffarber. Yes, that Blake Hoffarber, the young man from Minnetonka, Minnesota, who made an incredible 18-footer quite literally from the seat of his pants after being knocked to the floor in the waning seconds of the 2005 Minnesota state high school championship game. The shot quickly became an Internet sensation and netted Hoffarber an ESPY award for Top Play of the Year. Not every college freshman, surely, can claim to have bested Tiger Woods in an awards competition.
As for returning players, everyone's back for the Gophers this year, but Coach Smith will find that with this particular group of veterans he faces an unrelenting paradox: almost without exception, any player he puts on the floor to help the offense will hurt the defense, and vice versa. In 2007, Minnesota was a lethal combination of small and passive, on both sides of the ball. Leading scorer and starting two-guard Lawrence McKenzie illustrates this paradox well. The 6'2" McKenzie, a Minneapolis product who transferred back home after starting his college career playing for Kelvin Sampson at Oklahoma, is a capable three-point shooter (38 percent last year) but he records fewer steals per individual defensive possession than any other backcourt player, starter or reserve, in the entire Big Ten.
This was precisely where Minnesota's defense foundered last year. Despite the fact that the Gophers actually forced opponents into a surprising number of missed shots ("surprising" in current Minnesota terms meaning "about average"), they nevertheless gave up a generous 1.08 points per possession in conference play because opposing teams never turned the ball over. That's not McKenzie's doing alone, of course. Fellow starter Jamal Abu-Shamala, an even better three-point shooter, was almost as ineffective at creating opponent turnovers. The fact of the matter is that Smith would dearly love to find at least one guard who can disrupt opposing offenses. Unfortunately his most promising candidate for such a role, sophomore point guard Kevin Payton, turned the ball over more frequently than any other player in the Big Ten last year. Again, such are the trade-offs faced by the new coach in Minneapolis.
Smith's most valuable defender might just be senior forward Dan Coleman, who at 6'9" is both the best defensive rebounder and the best shot blocker on a team with no really good defensive rebounders and no really good shot blockers. Six-foot-seven sophomore Damian Johnson can wrest this second distinction away from Coleman if he can just get the playing time.
The bad news wasn't restricted to the defense last year. In fact, the offense was even worse (scoring just 0.92 points per trip in Big Ten play) and the problems started in the paint. In 2007, the Gophers made just 44 percent of their twos in-conference, easily the worst such figure in the Big Ten. Don't blame that poor shooting from in close on 6'9" Spencer Tollackson; his 2FG percentage was respectable enough, though a broken bone in his hand forced him to miss half the Big Ten season. Rather, all those missed twos likely speak to something more basic and thus more troubling: the absence of any offensive threat, in the paint or out top, potent enough to create open shots for teammates.
If missing their shots weren't bad enough, the Gophers also struggled to get shots. Minnesota not only gave the ball away on 23 percent of their possessions during the conference season (next-to-last in the conference, above only Michigan State), they were also unable to get second shots even when they held on to the ball, rebounding only a little more than one in four of their misses (next-to-last in the conference, above only Northwestern).
In short, with the single exception of three-point shooting, Minnesota's offense last year was weak across the board. Rome won't be built in a day in Minneapolis, not even by a coach with a national championship ring.