Thursday, November 8, 2007

Tubby's First Team: Depth, Experience A Concern

For all of those Minnesota fans expecting miracles out of Tubby Smith (on some days I'm included in that group), we need to realize exactly what Tubby Smith is dealing with.

Everyone should remember that last year's 9-22 record was in part a result of coaching, in part a result of a team that had given up (in my opinion) and in part a result of a team comprised of low-level Big Ten talent. If Hosea Crittenden were still around, I think he would have been the best point guard on last year's Gophers team.

As it was, the Gophers struggled to take care of the basketball, to score, to rebound etc. etc. While I blame coaching for some of that, it can't be ignored that the talent level on last year's team was very low. With few new additions to Tubby Smith's first group, the talent level hasn't improved. So, Tubby will have to do more this year with far less, if he's going to keep his streak of consecutive winning seasons going.

Let's take a look at who I think should start. This doesn't mean they will to begin with. I'm listing only four here, because I honestly can't decide who I'd like the fifth to be.

Center: Spencer Tollackson, Senior

Tollackson has the size and offensive wherwithal to play against most centers in the Big Ten. That's not to say that he's a dominant center. But I agree with Tom at Gopher Nation, who stated in this post that Tollackson is the "heart and soul" of the Gophers team. Tollackson runs the floor fairly well for a guy his size, plays solid defense--even though he is at times too slow with his feet--and can finish around the basket. At times he has reminded me of Jeff Hagen, though I think Tollackson has the ability to do more things on the court. Tollackson won't win any games by himself, but he can be a defensive factor, can finish underneath and ensure that Big Ten opponents respect Minnesota's inside game, which will hopefully free up some open looks from the outside.

Power Forward: Dan Coleman, Senior

I haven't always been the biggest fan of Dan Coleman. That's not to say he hasn't had some very good moments. But here's my gripe: I want my power forward to throw his body around. I want my power forward to be able to score with his back to the basket. I want my power forward to play like Courtney James. Alas, that's not what Dan Coleman is. He's a perimiter oriented power forward that can stroke it a little from the outside and occasionally put the ball on the floor. Coleman was second on the team in scoring a year ago, averaging 14.2 per game. While he likes to play away from the basket, he shot only 27 percent from beyond the arc. It would be nice to see that number increase if Tubby is going to play him out on the floor, but more than that, I'd like to see his rebounding numbers go up along with his trips to the charity stripe. It's true he led the Gophers in those categories a year ago, but the team needs to do a much better job on the defensive boards this year to be competitive, and with his athleticism, there is no reason Coleman can't get to the basket, draw contact, and go to the line where he shoots close to 80 percent.

Off-guard, Lawrence McKenzie, Senior

McKenzie is probably the most offensively talented of Minnesota's three returning senior starters. He's quick, CAN play good defense, and can light up the scoreboard on any given night. If there is a player on this team that can carry the load for an extended period, it's McKenzie. The former Oklahoma recruit led the Gophers in scoring last year (14.9) and shot near 40 percent from beyond the arc. For McKenzie to take another step this year, the Gophers need to find a competent point guard to ensure McKenize can concentrate on filling up the basket. Last season, McKenzie turned the ball over 97 times (compared to 86 assists). If Tubby Smith comes through on his promise to play more up-tempo, that should certainly help McKenzie. Too often last season McKenzie was left trying to create looks for himself (and he turned it over). The Gophers need to create looks for McKenzie. That will happen by pushing the ball when the opportunity presents itself and by Coleman and Tollackson being better than average underneath.

Point Guard: Al Nolen, Jr., Freshman

True freshman Al Nolen has reportedly impressed Tubby Smith with his ball handling and could give the 2007-08 team a true point guard, something it lacked last season. Nolen was a standout guard for playing ball in Minneapolis last season and has apparently taken the floor at Williams Arena with confidence. I tend to take exhibition results with a large grain of salt, but Nolen's dominant play against Southwest Minnesota State (24 points, 100 percent from the floor, including 5-for-5 from 3-point range) is encouraging. Recruiting reports suggest that Nolen can be an excellent slashing, penetrating point guard. If he can continue to score from beyond the arc, and most importantly, not turn the ball over, he can give the Gophers a much needed steadying hand--and fourth scoring option--at the point guard spot. I pencil in Nolen as a starter with some hesitation. He's the only true PG on the roster, but I expect Tubby will be somewhat hesitant to hand the keys to the offense to a true freshman.

The Top Four, Then What?

Off-guard, Lawrence Westbrook: If Tubby Smith decides to run a three-out, two-in system (what else can he do?), Westbrook is the odds on favorite to grab the fifth starting spot. Westbrook would add another scoring option to the starting five. Westbrook has also reportedly excelled in Tubby's defensive schemes, which aim to apply pressure to the basketball and create turnovers. If Tubby is looking to get out of the gates fast and create turnovers and run, then starting Westbrook, instead of Jamal Abu Shamala or Blake Hoffarber, is the right move. A starting spot, however, would be a big bump up for Westbrook, who averaged just more than 10 minutes per game last year off the bench.

Guard-Forward, Jamal Abu-Shamala: My position on Abu-Shamala is this: He's not athletic enough to play huge minutes for a Big Ten team, but he's perfect to be a spot-up perimiter shooter off the bench. I feel Abu-Shamala is too much of a liability to start as often as he did a year ago (21 games) and to post as many minutes as he did a year ago (21 per/gm). Yet he is probably the best pure shooter the Gophers have (time will tell on Hoffarber). Abu-Shamala shot 43 percent from 3-point range last year. If the Gophers are successful this year, Abu-Shamala needs to be a part of it. But I think his role is coming off the bench.

Point Guard/Off-Guard, Kevin Payton: If Tubby Smith plays it safe, expect to see Payton starting at point guard early on. His first season on the court for Minnesota last year was difficult for Payton. He was thrust into the starting lineup and into a position that he probably shouldn't have been as a redshirt freshman. He averaged 20 minutes, started 13 games and turned the ball over 72 times. That's far too high a number for only 20 minutes per game. We can write some of that off to the fact that Payton was learning on the job. But his defensive ability is also a concern. At 6-5, Payton could potentially cause matchup problems for other Big Ten guards, but he's also too slow to keep up with some of the speedier guards in the Big Ten. Unless Payton has taken considerable strides in the defensive and ball-handling departments in the offseason, I believe he is best suited for a back-up role.

Off Guard, Blake Hoffarber: We all know that Blake Hoffarber is famous, and if you don't, check out this YouTube link to find out why. He's also gotten up close and personal with Maria Sharapova, which puts him high up on my list of favorite Gophers of all time.

While that game-tying shot was one of the most amazing, clutch things I've ever seen, he's going to have to prove he can play at this level. All reports are that Hoffarber can shoot from anywhere on the court. Hoffarber is 6'3, and isn't lightning-quick, so his role, I imagine, will be to shoot the ball with consistency, handle the ball well and effectively enter the ball into the post. And Hoffarber is a winner, having led Hopkins to two big-school state titles. During his stint there, Hopkins only lost 3 varsity games. I'm basing this mostly on scouting reports I've seen on him, and I could be slightly off. But Hoffarber would seem to have a bright future with Minnesota. He claimed the Mr. Basketball honor over Kansas recruit Cole Aldrich. How much he'll be able to have an impact his freshman year remains to be seen, but this team's lack of depth will certainly provide him an opportunity to shine.

Power Forward/Center, Jonathan Williams: Mr. Williams better be ready to play, because after Coleman and Tollackson, Tubby Smith doesn't have much in terms of size on his bench. In the exhibition against Minnesota State, Williams grabbed 13 rebounds. While he likely won't put up those numbers against D1 competition, Tubby needs Williams to be a force on the boards, if nothing else. Williams can also contribute defensively in the paint. He averaged more than one block per game in conference play a season ago. Gopher fans shouldn't expect too much from Williams, but he'll be asked to chew up minutes and clog the paint. He's one of the players I'll be watching to see if Tubby Smith has an impact on our current crop of players. If Williams can take a step or two forward, offensively and defensively, it will be a huge bonus for this height-challenged team.

*** That would give the Gophers a nine-man rotation, but any injuries could be devastating, especially if they were to Tollackson or Coleman. Two other players could be in the mix for some playing time.

Damian Johnson, a sophomore forward, struggled in limited playing time a season ago. He's 6'7 and has that lanky small forward type frame that would seem to be conducive to playing a slasher role. But, and this is in limited viewing of him, I don't see the quickness necessary to pull that off. He should get some minutes, especially with this team's lack of size, but he'll need to show much more consistency on both ends of the floor to be more than a bit player.

And, finally, we have Travis Busch, a transfer from Cal-Poly. He's a 6'4 guard who I expect to be the last-man off the bench. If the Gophers have depth anywhere, it's at the guard position. If Busch can handle the ball well, it's conceivable he can get some minutes in the backcourt. But the team lists him as a guard/forward, so that indicates to me he doesn't have the quickness to play full-time in the backcourt. And his size would seem to limit any minutes he would see at the small forward slot.

Final Analysis: The Gophers' strength lies in its backcourt and starting post players. However, stating those are strengths is somewhat relative. The Minnesota frontcourt has absolutely no depth. Foul-trouble and injuries to Coleman or Tollackson could be devastating. McKenzie, Nolen, Hoffarber, Westbrook and Payton can certainly be a solid backcourt. But aside from McKenzie, each of the other guards is light on experience. If Tubby Smith is playing for 2008-09 and beyond, he'd be wise to get Nolen in the lineup early and often and get Westbrook the experience he needs to take a lead on this team in the coming years. If the Gophers are to take a huge leap and contend for an NCAA berth, they'll need someone to take a few steps foward, someone like Payton, Johnson, Williams or Westbrook.

This is the third installment in my preview. Last weekend I looked at the team's schedule, optimisitcally predicting an 18-12 finish. I've also looked at what I see are some realistic expectations for Tubby's first season. Later, I'll publish a guest post from Kentucky blogger Tru from A Sea of Blue. Tru has always been an even-keeled UK blogger and has agreed to give us a look at what to expect from Tubby as a bench coach.


From The Barn said...

Williams at the very least looks meaner and more aggressive than last year. He would be a perfect second big man off the bench- thrown in to knock people around. He has shown flashes of offensive skill and might, just might, turn into a viable inside presence. Of course this is based on watching him push around DII farm boys.

Johnson may be more athletic than you give him credit for. If nothing else, he can get off the court, which may enable him to guard someone much bigger much better than the average lanky small forward.

PJS said...

I have my fingers crossed for both of them. I think Williams is a key for the season. We need him to provide some muscle, if nothing else, from the bench.

Anonymous said...

Nice analysis, PJS. I don't think that Nolen will get the starting job right away though.