A lot of questions soon to be answered

Head coach Tubby Smith has an uphill battle ahead of him this year.

Zach Eisendrath

There was no shortage of questions for the Minnesota men’s basketball team when the Gophers held their annual season-opening media day at Williams Arena on Wednesday.

With a completely overhauled coaching staff, the addition of two intriguing in-state freshmen, and the challenge of rebounding from a program-worst 9-22 season, many questions still remain before the Gophers’ first regular-season game Nov. 10. But after two weeks of team-practices, some things are starting to clear up.

on the web

Check online for the basketball blog for up-to-the-minute basketball news, player information and everything that relates to Minnesota men’s basketball.
Basketball Blog

Point guard dilemma

The Gophers’ point guard situation has drawn the most interest early in the season. Freshman Al Nolen and senior Lawrence McKenzie appear to be the two frontrunners to start.

Nolen might be the Gophers’ best ball handler, and has impressed coach Tubby Smith with his defensive tenacity, but he is still a true freshman and that could cause the coaching staff to be cautious about throwing him into the fire come Big Ten play.

McKenzie, who played some point guard last season as well as during his days in the Big 12 with Oklahoma, brings more experience to the position, but his skills appear to be much more suited for the shooting guard position. Playing mostly as a two-guard last season, McKenzie averaged a team-high 14.9 points per game and was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection.

McKenzie said he is comfortable playing at either guard position.

“I’m willing to play whatever position that I need to help the team,” he said.

“If I play the one or the two, I think I can do the same things. I can still get it and penetrate from the wing and pass it, I can still be a leader out there (at shooting guard). If I get the ball in transition, I’m not going to give it to Al; I’m going to push it up myself.”

Gophers coach Tubby Smith said sophomores Kevin Payton and Lawrence Westbrook, as well as freshman Blake Hoffarber, could also be counted on to man the position throughout the year, depending on matchups.

Regardless of who plays the point, Tubby Smith said they must take care of the ball to stay on the floor.

“I’m not caught up on battles,” he said. “It will be based on who gives us the best chance to win at the time.”

Thin front court

Minnesota is experienced in the paint with returning seniors Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson manning the post. But with center Bryce Webster’s departure from the team in early September, the Gophers are also extremely thin down low.

Junior center Jonathan Williams will be counted on to do much of the dirty work inside when Coleman and Tollackson receive breathers.

Without a true backup power forward, Smith has been forced to experiment at the position with junior Brandon Smith and sophomore Damian Johnson, two players who played predominantly small forward last season.

The two are arguably the Gophers’ best athletes, and despite a lack of size, Smith said he will be looked upon to help the Gophers rebound inside.

No lack of leadership

The Gophers didn’t have a single senior on last season’s roster, making it hard to distinguish a true leader. There should be no such problem this year.

Minnesota’s three seniors, Tollackson, Coleman and McKenzie, have made it a priority to lead by example this year.

Tollackson has dedicated himself to getting in better shape and has shed 19 pounds. Coleman comes into practice an hour and a half early and stays late. McKenzie is trying to be vocal in practice.

“It’s something we talked about all summer, something that I wanted to improve on,” McKenzie said. “We have to be leaders on and off the court. Every day we have to be the three who are giving 100 percent no matter what. No matter if we missed a homework assignment, no matter if our girls are in a bad mood.”

Freshmen impressing

Nolen and Hoffarber have drawn rave reviews from the Gophers’ coaching staff and a variety of players for how they’ve conduced themselves since the start of the year.

“I’ve been very impressed with Blake and Al,” Tubby Smith said. “If there’s a real bright spot, those two are.”

Brandon Smith said he expects both freshmen to be a big part of the team in their first year.

“They’ve shown great heart, he said. “They’ve come out here with great enthusiasm and are ready to go.”

Outlook

During his 16-year head coaching career at Georgia, Tulsa and Kentucky, Tubby Smith has never had a losing season and hasn’t missed the NCAA tournament in 14 years.

Still, Tubby Smith didn’t make any bold predictions about postseason plans for his first year with the Gophers, but said Minnesota will be competitive.

“We are taking it day by day here. I’m not Nostradamus; I can’t predict what we are going to do. But I think we’ll be a very tough team.

“There are a lot of question marks as to what we are capable of doing, but I expect us to be very competitive in every game we play. If we can just not beat ourselves, because that’s an area we had issues with last year.”

Despite having relatively the same team as the one that went 3-13 in the Big Ten last season, players believe they can turn things around, this year.

“We are coming in to surprise people,” sophomore guard Kevin Payton said. “We have the same team back; people know what happened last year. Nobody wants to experience such a feeling again. I think people are really excited to do something about it.”

Tollackson said it is not out of the realm of possibilities that Minnesota makes the NCAA tournament if the Gophers take care of business at The Barn.

“I think home games are huge. I think that’s our key to this season. If we can win every home game this year I think we will have pretty good shot at making the tournament,” he said. “Hopefully the people come out and this place will be rocking like it used to.”

McKenzie agreed that the Gophers shouldn’t be aiming for anything less than a postseason appearance.

“If you don’t set your goals high, there is no use of even playing out here. If you aren’t coming out here thinking you can make it to the postseason, there is no use to even suit up and get on the floor.”