Gophers host Bucknell at the Barn to begin regular season

The Bison return Minnesota native Mike Muscala from an NCAA tournament team a year ago.

Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe charges up the court against Agustana Monday at Williams Arena.

Marisa Wojcik

Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe charges up the court against Agustana Monday at Williams Arena.

Charlie Armitz

For the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team, the two-game exhibition season was full of ups and downs.

As Minnesota opens its regular season Friday night at Williams Arena against Bucknell, fans will get their first glimpse at which concerns are real, and which were merely the product of fine-tuning against a pair of Division II opponents.

A member of the Division I Patriot League, Bucknell is a step up from Bemidji State and Augustana âÄî the two teams Minnesota defeated by double digits in exhibition play, albeit not convincingly.

Unlike the Gophers, the Bison made the NCAA tournament last season, where they lost to third seed and eventual national champions Connecticut 81-52 in the first round.

Minnesota didnâÄôt even make the NIT âÄî but it did witness the rise of forward Trevor Mbakwe, who has followed his outstanding 2010-11 season with two dominant

exhibition games to begin 2011-12.

Mbakwe averaged 19.5 points and 12 rebounds in the GophersâÄô wins over Bemidji State and Augustana. He shot a combined 13-for-15 from the field and 13-for-14 from the free-throw line.

He also scored 16 of his 22 points in the second half against Augustana to help Minnesota overcome a five-point halftime deficit.

âÄúLast year, I didnâÄôt think I did a good job of being a good leader and stepping up down the stretch,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄúI think thatâÄôs where the better players show their true colors.âÄù

Mbakwe and fellow big man Ralph Sampson III will have their hands full with Mike Muscala, the BisonâÄôs leading scorer from a year ago.

A graduate of MinnesotaâÄôs Roseville High School, the 6-foot-11 Muscala averaged 14.9 points in 2010-11 and also led the team with 7.3 rebounds per game.

He won Patriot League Player of the Year last team for a Bucknell team that won the conference with a 13-1 record (25-9 overall).

While Muscala is the BisonâÄôs best player, the larger concern for the Gophers may be the battle of the backcourts.

MinnesotaâÄôs guards have combined to shoot 5-for-20 from beyond the arc, while allowing opponents to shoot 18-for-51.

Many of those three-point shots have come as a result of missed defensive assignments in transition.

âÄúTransition defense these past couple games has been a little struggle for us, and guarding the 3-ball,âÄù forward Rodney Williams said. âÄúThose are two of the big things that we really need to work on.âÄù

Williams scored 10 points in each of teamâÄôs exhibition games. He will likely join Sampson III, Mbakwe, Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins as the GophersâÄô starting five Friday night.