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October 9, 2009
One thing's for sure: Minnesota officials and fans will appreciate Tubby Smith in a way Kentucky's didn't near the end of the coach's tenure in Lexington. In his second season with the Gophers, Smith led Minnesota to its first NCAA tournament since 2005. The Gophers started 16-1, including a win over eventual Big East champion Louisville. Minnesota cooled off after that, ending the season on a 6-10 skid that culminated in a loss to Texas in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Smith's team should be better equipped to handle playing more consistently at a high level this season: The Gophers' top nine scorers return. Minnesota will get help from a standout freshman class that ranked in the top 25 nationally. The class is led by five-star forward Royce White and top-100 forward Rodney Williams.
Ralph Sampson III, left, is an inside force for Minnesota, which led the Big Ten in blocks.
Minnesota led the Big Ten in blocks per game. The Gophers have two towers in 6-11 Ralph Sampson III and 6-10 Colton Iverson. Damian Johnson isn't as tall as those two, but the 6-7 senior can't be overlooked either. With those three leading the way, Minnesota was the only team in the conference to average more than six blocks per game. Sampson and Iverson complement each other well - Sampson is more skilled, Iverson is a little stronger. Still, Johnson was the key to the Gophers' defensive strength. He led the team in blocks (60) and steals (58). The Gophers have plenty of depth, with the freshmen and 6-8 junior Paul Carter coming off the bench.
This is where Minnesota needs to be more consistent. The Gophers, Iowa and Indiana were the only Big Ten teams to average more turnovers than assists. Some of the blame could fall on point guard Al Nolen, though he and Johnson were the only players on the roster who saw significant minutes who had more assists than turnovers. He struggled through January and February before regrouping during the final five games. Lawrence Westbrook might be the de facto team MVP as the only player on the roster to average in double figures (12.6 ppg). He hit his fair share of big shots for Minnesota. Reserve Blake Hoffarber is Minnesota's top outside threat.
With a mix of experience and talented freshmen, Minnesota is on its way to building a consistent NCAA tourney team. Big prizes could be in the Gophers' future, possibly as soon as this season.
Preseason rankings were compiled by basketball writers David Fox, Mike Huguenin, Jason King and Steve Megargee.