MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota coach Tubby Smith has yet to win an NCAA tournament game since his celebrated arrival at the school five years ago.
This season will give him as good of a chance as any.
The Gophers have every starter returning from their squad that was runner-up in the NIT last spring to finish 23-15. Center Ralph Sampson III has graduated, but he was injured and didn't play in any of the last seven games. They have standout Trevor Mbakwe in the post once again, after the sixth-year senior recently dodged more legal trouble. Sophomores Andre Hollins, Joe Coleman and Elliott Eliason are expected to be better with extra experience. Even big man Maurice Walker is back, having last played in a game before Christmas in 2010.
"It's definitely the deepest team we've had," said Mbakwe, who will start the season as a backup to Rodney Williams at the power forward spot.
Mbakwe, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last November, was the Big Ten's leading rebounder and the team's leading scorer in 2010-11. Once he's at full strength, Smith hinted, he'll play some center so the Gophers can keep Williams in the post.
Williams struggled with his ball-handling and shooting his first two years, but after Mbakwe's injury he finally looked comfortable on the court once forced to take over the "4'' position. Williams, one of four seniors on the 15-man roster, might be the most important player on the team considering any production Mbakwe provides this season can be construed as a bonus.
"When you put the tag or label 'great' on someone it's tough, but Rodney has the capability," Smith said. "I think he has turned the corner. He did everything for us last year. ... I see him making that next step to not just being a good player, but being a dominant player for us, and carrying the role of being a leader on the team, not just a great athlete."
The Gophers host Minnesota State Mankato on Thursday in their first exhibition game and American University on Nov. 9 to officially open the season.
"Guys are real excited and ready to show everybody what we've got," Williams said, adding: "The potential is out the gym."
Williams hasn't given up on playing the wing. He said he focused hard on his shooting and ball-handling in anticipation of Mbakwe's return. With the 6-foot-11 Eliason and the return of the 290-pound Walker, there are other players to patrol the paint. Walker hurt his right knee 12 games into his freshman year and didn't recover fully enough to play last season, so he took a redshirt. Freshman Charles Buggs from Texas, who's 6-foot-8, could also see some time down low.
"I definitely need to continue to work on my outside game. It'll come back along, but it's going to take some time," Williams said.
Another freshman, 6-foot-4 Wally Ellenson from Rice Lake, Wis., has joined the young backcourt. Julian Welch is slated to be a utility man of sorts, playing any of the first three positions on the floor. Maverick Ahanmisi is still around. Oto Osenieks is another reserve. That athletic group will support Hollins, Coleman and Austin Hollins, a trio that had plenty of struggles at times last season but showed a lot of potential, too.
"We're expecting an NCAA tournament berth. We're looking to make a deep run," said Andre Hollins, adding: "Everybody's changed physically. We've gotten stronger. We've gotten faster. Jumping higher. It's just the thing that we want to carry over."
The schedule is probably Smith's toughest yet at Minnesota, too.
Fans at Williams Arena won't see any major-conference opponents until Big Ten play begins with a home game against Michigan State on Dec. 31, but the Gophers travel to USC and Florida State, which is ranked 25th in the preseason Associated Press poll.
Three other out-of-league foes, American, Tennessee State and South Dakota State, each won 20 games or more in 2011-12. The Jackrabbits reached the NCAA tournament with star Nate Wolters, a native of St. Cloud.
The Battle 4 Atlantis tournament that Minnesota will play in over Thanksgiving weekend in the Bahamas begins with a matchup against eighth-ranked Duke. Either 17th-ranked Memphis or VCU will wait in the next round. Second-ranked Louisville and 15th-ranked Missouri are also in the field, and all eight of the entrants at least received votes in the AP poll.
Oh, and then there's the conference itself, which could be the strongest it's been in years. Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan are ranked in the top five. Michigan State is 14th, and Wisconsin is 23rd.
So even with the depth, experience and talent the Gophers are bringing to the competition, they'll have to surpass the consensus external expectations for them to beat the sixth-place finishes in 2009-10 and 2007-08 that have been Smith's highest here. They were ninth in the Big Ten the last two years.
"With so many talented players and so many good teams, we're going to be in a position to have more than we had in the past, I would think, selected to play in the NCAAs," Smith said. "Let's hope we're one of those teams. We have expectations going forward this year. We're looking forward to putting ourselves in that position, and that takes winning."
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