2008-09 Preview: Minnesota

Minnesota (Last season: 20-14, 8-10, #61 Pomeroy ranking): Tubby's first season in Minnesota was wildly successful, in that the Gophers more than doubled their win total from the year, but the 2007-08 season also demonstrates the value in returning minutes. The Gophers brought back over 85% of their minutes, and the results were fueled by the play of experienced upperclassmen. Seniors Dan Coleman and Lawrence McKenzie played the most minutes, took the most shots, and were the team's best players.

Also working in Minnesota's favor was an easy schedule. The Gophers were a below .500 team in the Big Ten (with a matching -0.02 Efficiency Margin in conference games), yet somehow ended up with 20 wins. The reason was largely because Minnesota's non-conference schedule was within the bottom 20th percentile in terms of difficulty in all of college basketball. Minnesota played 2 teams in the top 75 of Pomeroy's Rankings, and they got pasted both times. To be fair, though, both games were on the road (at FSU and UNLV). Minnesota's schedule isn't out as of this writing, but it's unlikely to be as easy this season (Ed. Note: Minnesota's schedule has been released, and other than a neutral court game against Louisville, the non-conference portion looks pretty tame) (More Ed. Note: It seems others agree with this assessment. Also, was Tubby making a joke with that Notre Dame comment?).

Minnesota will also have to replace Coleman and McKenzie, along with Spencer Tollackson. Tollackson played hard, but was not an elite-level big man. His eFG was a middling 51.5%, and he was a mediocre rebounder his entire career. That said, Minnesota's bench was not filled with quality big men last season. Rising junior Damian Johnson should be able to replace the production of Coleman pretty well, but there aren't any immediate candidates to match Tollackson's output. More likely, the Gophers will rely on the backcourt to take more shots, and incoming top 100 RSCI big man Ralph Sampson, III to grab rebounds. It's not an ideal fix, but a workable one.

This is especially true because the Gophers have some attractive options in the backcourt. The unquestioned leader of the team figures to be junior Lawrence Westbrook, who showed massive improvement from a very ugly freshman campaign. Westbrook can shoot it from deep (39.3%), but needs to learn to stay behind the line a bit more this season. While he's gifted at getting into the lane, his size (6-0) doesn't allow him to finish all that well on two pointers (43.6%). He shot almost twice as many 2s as 3s -- if he can reverse that ratio without changing his field goal percentage, he'll be a much better player.

Junior Damian Johnson is already a great defensive player (he easily met the Renaldo Balkman Threshold last season), and so long as he recognizes he's strictly an interior scorer (25% 3P), he'll be alright on offense. Al Nolen had a promising freshman campaign, and was 9th in the country in Steal Percentage. However, what I'm excited to see is what Blake Hoffarber can do. Yes, that one. And that one. It's my working theory that Blake will be remembered for more than last-second shots by the time he's done. His numbers from last season are as impressive as any non-"1 and dones." No, Blake doesn't rebound well, he doesn't create for others, either. But he's a deadeye shooter (59.5% eFG), and not just a guy who picks his spots (23.2 Shot%). As you would expect from a shooter, he doesn't turn it over, either (13.1% TO Rate). Over 40 minutes, he averaged 16 PPG in conference games. Because his Shot% was so high last season, I don't expect much of a dropoff in that rate as his minutes increase. Blake has a bright future, and is a possible breakout scorer this year in the Big 10.

So what to expect from Minnesota? Well, about the same, which I guess means they'll finish with anything between 15-20 wins as a NIT/bubble team. But the real payoff comes in 2009-10. Minnesota doesn't lose much after this season, and they also welcome McDonald's All-American candidate Royce White. Tubby's turned this team around quickly, and the future looks bright.

Projected Minnesota rotation (statistics are for conference games only):