Gophers offer season preview at Howard Pulley league

While some fans watch the Howard Pulley Pro-Am league for the fun of it, diehard Gophers fans try and get a taste for next season.

Troy Bell, center, maneuvers the ball away from Ohio State's P.J. Hill, left, and the Gophers' Austin Hollins, right, on Thursday during a pro-am Howard Pulley league game at the High Performance Academy in Eagan, Minn.

Simon Guerra

Troy Bell, center, maneuvers the ball away from Ohio State’s P.J. Hill, left, and the Gophers’ Austin Hollins, right, on Thursday during a pro-am Howard Pulley league game at the High Performance Academy in Eagan, Minn.

Andrew Krammer

Rodney Williams cut right toward the baseline, accelerated past the defender and took the ball to the rim.

Sound technique was not rewarded, as his attempted layup rolled off the iron.

“Rodney shouldn’t miss that shot in this game,” said Dan Mayer, a season-ticket holder to Gophers men’s basketball. “He’ll never make it in Big Ten play.”

Mayer, 43, from Maple Grove, Minn., sat courtside at the High Performance Academy in Eagan, Minn., watching Gophers teammates Williams and Joe Coleman compete in Howard Pulley Pro-Am Summer League play.

For basketball players, Howard Pulley is a chance for all levels of players — high school, college and even semi-professional talents — to compete, sharpen their skills and have a little fun before their respective seasons begin in the fall.

For Gophers fans, it’s a chance, locally, to see how their favorite players have developed and where to set their expectations come October.

With the team’s star Trevor Mbakwe returning from an ACL tear in his right knee, expectations are at their highest for coach Tubby Smith since his arrival in 2007.

“Oh, they’ll be good,” said Roger Collins, who has owned Gophers season tickets since 1972. “This is the year we’re back in the [NCAA] tournament.”

Minnesota has missed the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons with losing Big Ten records, but it showed promise in last year’s National Invitation Tournament, where it lost in the championship game.

Collins, 66, is the “eternal optimist,” according to Mayer, his son-in-law.

“They’re only as good as Trevor [Mbakwe’s] knee takes them,” Mayer said.

Though Mbakwe isn’t playing in Howard Pulley, Gophers fans watched Williams, Coleman and Austin Hollins compete Thursday night.

“I’ve heard the hype,” said Jim Olson, a former boys’ basketball coach in Randolph, Minn. “While this is a great fix in the summer for us basketball junkies, it’s a chance to actually see the college and high school kids who have ties to Minnesota.”

Olson comes to watch summer league games intermittently with other “basketball junkies” he knows, who are also former high school coaches.

However, Olson said, they can’t take Howard Pulley play too seriously.

“It’s good basketball,” he said. “That’s why we come. But it gets a little feisty, and there’s absolutely no defense played until maybe the final two minutes — if it’s a close game.”

So that’s why Mayer said Williams shouldn’t have missed the open layup, especially after blowing by the defender so effortlessly.

“[Williams is] such an athletic talent,” Mayer said. “One of the best on the [Gophers] team. He just needs to work on finishing and the perimeter shot, too.”

While average fans can turn into courtside analysts, the summer games don’t always boast the rosters that are listed.

Last Thursday, incoming freshmen Charles Buggs and Wally Ellenson were slated to play but didn’t make an appearance.

Senior Julian Welch was dressed to team up with Hollins in the backcourt, but Welch sat on the bench for 2 1/2 quarters before leaving in the third.

Howard Pulley play begins in mid-June and continues through July. Some fans said they don’t expect the player’s full efforts until the league’s playoffs at the end of the month.

“We’re looking forward to that,” Olson said about his crew of former coaches.