This early in the offseason, there are still a ton of unanswered questions for Tubby Smith and his Golden Gophers. Last season, two of the Gophers biggest recruits, Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe, never played a single minute due to legal issues. White went so far as to quit school and basketball altogether (at least for a melodramatic moment or two), and Mbakwe is still mired in a felony battery case. Throw in point guard Al Nolen missing the second semester due to an academic suspension and a very talent Gopher team had a pretty miserable season. All three of those players remain question marks at this point for the 2010-11 season. Mbakwe will not play until his trial is complete, Nolen will have to get back on track academically and White? Well, White needs a lot of things, not the least of which is some growing up.

However, despite those question marks and the loss of leading scorer Lawrence Westbrook and team leader Damian Johnson to graduation,  and hustle-man extraordinaire Paul Carter to a tragic transfer (he is transferring to a school closer to his Chicago home to be closer to his sister Bria who is battling cancer), the cupboards are far from empty in The Barn. If Nolen returns, he’ll likely share the three-guard backcourt with junior point Devoe Joseph and senior shooter Blake Hoffarber, the team’s leading returning scorer. Sophomore Justin Cobbs will get the spare minutes at the point. Up front, the Gopher’s could go with a twin-tower frontcourt with juniors Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson, each having shown flashes of brilliance in their first two seasons. If both continue to improve, that could be an excellent post duo. If Smith chooses to start just one of the post players and bring the other off the bench, Mbakwe and White would both be potential starters assuming that they are even on the team. Sophomore Rodney Williams could also be a contender to start up front, but he is more of a natural swingman rather than a power player.

Minnesota’s recruiting class was put together late, and doesn’t feature any major impact players, but there could be some surprises there. There are three frontcourt options in the class: Mo Walker (a massive 6-10 center with a bit of skill) Elliott Eliason (a 6-9 center from a small town in Nebraska who has drawn some comparisons to Iverson, another Gopher recruit from a small town), and 6-9 power forward Oto Osenieks (a relatively unknown Latvian player who brings a face-up game that the most effusive Gopher fans compare to Robbie Hummel). Their sole backcourt recruit to this point is Austin Hollins, the son of Memphis Grizzlies’ head coach Lionel Hollins. As is common for coaches’ kids, Hollins is regarded as a smart backcourt player who can do a little of everything.

Even if all the question marks on this team get answered in the affirmative, this won’t be as talented of a Gopher team next year as it was last year, but there is still enough talent for an upper-division Big Ten finish and a NCAA bid. While Mbakwe and White may not ever play a minute in a Gopher uniform, if Smith can bring Nolen back for his senior season and get some useful minutes out of the freshmen bigs, everything should be okay in The Barn. And if Sampson and/or Iverson turn it up this season, things might just turn out better than “okay”.

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