By Jason Rossow
When Trevor Mbakwe (above, right) went down in the Championship Game of the Old Spice Classic over Thanksgiving weekend, I assumed the Gopher Basketball season was done. Since that night however, the Gophers have rattled off six consecutive victories over some decent competition.
The player I’ve been most impressed with, and I feel is the Gophers best player (now that Mbakwe is done) is JUCO transfer Julian Welch (above, left). He makes good decisions with the ball, can get a basket when needed, and plays solid defense. Welch has averaged 14 points a game WOM (without Mbakwe) and scoring just 6.6 WM (with Mbakwe). With point guard being the most important position in basketball, I give the Gophers a much better chance at staying in games with Welch running the show. Most impessive for Welch is he is shooting free-throws at a .875 clip!
The other player that has stepped up the most WOM is Rodney Williams. One of the most gifted players to ever put on the Maroon & Gold is FINALLY showing signs of becoming a legit Big10 player. Losing Mbakwe has forced Tubby to put Williams at the 4-spot, getting him closer to the rim. It’s obvious that Williams (as of this moment) is a better power forward than small forward. WM, Williams was scoring a modest 7.7 per, but WOM he's pumped in 12 a game. Of course, when you have two dunks per game it skews the numbers, but Williams is shooting a crazy .613 from the field. Williams continues to get the Gophers national attention with his sick dunks that regularly crack the Top-10 Sportscenter plays of the night. Williams is the best dunker I’ve seen play for Minnesota, or the Big10 for that matter. Now if the rest of his game could catch up to his leaping/dunking ability, you’d have a lottery pick.
For the Gophers to have any success in the Big10, Ralph Sampson III is going to need to play well. Ralph is already a senior this year for the Gophers, and will probably go down as the being the most hyped, yet having the most underwhelming career you could imagine. Ralph continues to look like he’d rather be doing anything in life BUT playing basketball. His lack of effort, hustle, waste of a 6’11 frame, and waste of natural talent shouldn’t be confused with being a calm, focused, mentally tough player.
Prior to Mbakwe going down, I had the Gophers projected around 5th in the Big10 and making an early exit from the NCAA tourney. Now, even with the six consecutive non-conference wins, I’m not a believer in this team. If they could go .500 in the Big10 I would be impressed. The Big10 is stacked this season, and could argue with the Big East as to who is the premier basketball league in America. With Ohio St., Michigan St., Purdue, Indiana, Illionis, Wisconsin and Michigan all legit Top-20 teams in the country, the Gophers just don’t have a great chance of being successful without their top player. Another thing that has me concerned is the lack of road games. To be successful in the Big10, you need to win some road games. That has been Tubby’s downfall every year he’s been here. So what do the schedule makers do for Team Tubby this year? Of the 13 non-conference games, 10 of them are at the Barn, and three of them at a neutral site. They have their first true road game December 27th when the travel to Illinois to open up Big10 play. After that night, we’ll have a good understanding of what kind of team the Gophers have WOM. Losing a top-5 Big10 player from an otherwise mediocre (at best) team is going to prove to be too much to overcome for Tubby’s squad. I predict the worst three letters in college basketball coming our way in Mid-March…… N. I. T.