Talent may not carry Gophers in 2009-10

Minnesota looks to improve on a first-round tournament exit last season.

Marco LaNave

Veterans say it could be the most talented team of their careers. Third-year head coach Tubby Smith says it is as athletic a team as he has coached at Minnesota. The Gophers menâÄôs basketball team, with a core of veterans and a strong recruiting class, is aiming high above last yearâÄôs NCAA Tournament berth as it enters the 2009-10 season. âÄúI have no doubt in my mind this team is the most talented team [I have been a part of],âÄù senior forward Damian Johnson said. âÄúWeâÄôve got big-time recruits, guys whoâÄôve been through the struggles, whoâÄôve proven themselves.âÄù Johnson is among last yearâÄôs top nine scorers and top eight rebounders, all of whom return. Eight of the nine returners also played an average of at least 15 minutes per game last season . They are joined by a recruiting class that features local stars Royce White , who led Hopkins to a state title and was named MinnesotaâÄôs Mr. Basketball last year, and Rodney Williams (Robbinsdale Cooper ), who introduced himself to Gophers fans by winning the slam-dunk contest at the third annual TubbyâÄôs Tipoff event Friday . âÄúTalent alone doesn’t mean youâÄôre going to win,âÄù Smith said. âÄúIt goes back to the chemistry, guys accepting their role.âÄù With every starter returning, there are plenty of candidates for substantial playing time, and the newcomers will be expected to perform to earn minutes. âÄúThey still have to gain that experience to know how to use their strength and their athleticism,âÄù Smith said. Players who have been on the last two teams under Smith know the team will need to work for its success on the court. Junior point guard Al Nolen said this yearâÄôs team is the most talented one in his three years with the program, but the Gophers will still have to mesh well to achieve their goals. âÄúCoach SmithâÄôs teams are all about teamwork, so this year could be our best year, with the talent we have, but it could be our worst year, with the talent we have, too, if we donâÄôt play together as a team,âÄù Nolen said. âÄúThis year could be a huge year for us if we just play our cards right.âÄù