Lawrence McKenzie will be a focal point for the Golden Gophers and for opposing defenses. New coach Tubby Smith doesn't have a true point guard on the roster even though everyone returns from last season's team. The hope will be that not only can McKenzie handle his fair share of the scoring load (he's the third-leading returning scorer in the Big Ten) but handle the ball a majority of the time as well. Jamal Abu-Shamala will get first crack to start opposite McKenzie, but he may not be the best fit for Smith. Abu-Shamala plays smart and definitely has a role as a 3-point shooter, but he doesn't have the quicks to play Tubby-style defense.
MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
Guard Lawrence McKenzie will be the focus of the Gophers' attack.
Dan Coleman is the fourth-leading returning scorer and sixth-leading returning rebounder in the Big Ten. If Smith can get Coleman to be as aggressive in the Big Ten as he is in summer leagues, Coleman is a potential all-league performer. Spencer Tollackson helps take some of the load off Coleman, and he has shown flashes. He simply must be more consistent and he has to rebound better. Tollackson has been injury-plagued, but Smith figures to amp up the conditioning in Gopherland. Brandon Smith has the athletic ability to have a breakthrough season, but he has to take care of off-the-court troubles that have plagued him.
McKenzie and Coleman are proven scorers in the Big Ten. Most of the offense will flow through McKenzie. The key to a better offense (Minnesota ranked 10th in the Big Ten in scoring at just 60.6 ppg) will be getting more out of the players around the main options, particularly Westbrook and Brandon Smith. The fact there isn't a true penetrator has hurt. The Gophers have some good 3-point shooters (Abu-Shamala and incoming freshman Blake Hoffarber) if they can get decent looks.
Tubby Smith's teams at Kentucky excelled on defense, and the Gophers have enough athleticism to be a solid man-to-man team. You have to believe the new coach would like to be able to extend the defense at times, and he can with a lineup of McKenzie, Kevin Payton, Brandon Smith, Lawrence Westbrook and Coleman. The defense will be improved greatly if Tollackson and Coleman do a better job on the defensive boards as well. Teams lived off second-chance opportunities last season.
Outlook with postseason forecast
Yes, on the surface it appears a little crazy to take a team that was 9-22 and put it in the top 64. But the Big Ten will be down this year, and Coleman and McKenzie are talented players. This team lost seven games by seven or fewer points. If Tubby is worth 7.5 points a game, that's 16-15. We're not saying this is an NCAA team, but you can put it down for the NIT.
Shoes to Fill
Head coach. Dan Monson resigned in November after Minnesota was off to a 2-5 start. Things didn't get much better under interim Jim Molinari. In comes former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith with a national championship on his resume. Tubby has won at least 20 games for the past 13 seasons and he has only been a head coach for 15 years. If he keeps his streak alive he'll be national coach of the year.
Must Step Up
Brandon Smith. The former three-star prospect is long, strong and athletic. He had high-major offers from all over the map (UCLA, Wisconsin, Marquette, Oklahoma). It's time he fulfilled the potential all of those programs saw.
Blake Hoffarber. Minnesota's Mr. Basketball picked the Golden Gophers over Notre Dame and Vanderbilt. He's got a sweet shooting stroke, and he's a winner - he has won consecutive Minnesota state high school titles.
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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