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November 4, 2009

Don’t bail on Minnesota just yet

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 10:39 am

I’ve been a little surprised at the dire proclamations triggered by the off-court mishaps of Minnesota freshman Royce White and his would-be teammate, junior-college transfer Trevor Mbakwe.

For anyone just tuning in, Tubby Smith has suspended White “indefinitely” following the freshman’s arrest for shoplifting and assault at the Mall of America last month. (Speaking of surprises, why in the world would an 18-year-old male at MOA go to Macy’s instead of Nickelodeon Universe? The Rock Bottom Plunge is mighty!) Meanwhile Mbakwe is facing assault charges in Florida and will not play until that matter is resolved. Lastly, as long as his suspendin’ arm was good and loose, Smith also suspended Devron Bostick for reasons unknown.

So White, Mbakwe, and Bostick won’t see the floor for the foreseeable future. That’s less than ideal, sure. White and Mbakwe in particular were expected to help supply points for a team that was not always terribly proficient at creating those things in 2008-09. Still, just how big an on-court hit is this, really? Let’s go to the bullets.

  • The 11-player rotation (repeat, 11 players) that Smith deployed in Minneapolis last year can be profitably compared to the armed forces of mainland China crossing the Yalu in November 1950. And relative who-dats like Jamal Abu-Shamala and Travis Busch notwithstanding, that rotation is back for more this season. In fact the Gophers return nine out of every ten minutes played in 2008-09. As chance would have it, then, no other Big Ten roster is so well-positioned to withstand the off-court misadventures of a four-star freshman, a JC transfer, and a former JC transfer who was the 11th player in last year’s 11-player rotation. Smith has depth to burn and he’s burning it.   
  • Yes, Minnesota was ghastly on offense last year, particularly after February 1. But this defense is going to be a true pain in the whiteboard for ten opposing Big Ten coaches. Off the top of my head I can’t recall another major-conference D that has combined beastly shot-blocking with Mike Anderson-like harassment and forced turnovers on the perimeter the way the Gophers did last year. The players responsible for the former quality are Damian Johnson, Ralph Sampson, and Colton Iverson. The players responsible for the latter are Johnson and Al Nolen. Newcomers like White and Mbakwe, at least at the outset, will merely be along for the ride here. So Minnesota doesn’t have to be North Carolina on offense. With a defense this good the Gophers can be merely average on offense and still win a fair number of games. 
  • White projects to be a fine player, possibly even an NBA prospect after two or three years. But he also projects to be a freshman in 2009-10. He’s not going to be a Derrick Rose or a Michael Beasley. His best-case for the year is something more akin to what Craig Brackins did for Iowa State as a freshman in 2007-08: Lots of shots, occasional flashes of what’s to come, lots of misses.
  • This could all be forgotten by next month. Smith won’t say how long an “indefinite” suspension lasts but it may not be all that long: “It could be two games. It could be five, six. It could be more. It could be 20. It depends on what I want, what I decide.” If it’s two or even five or six, there will be articles come February about how White has “matured” and “come of age” after a “rocky transition” to college hoops. Next topic.

I don’t doubt that Smith is disappointed in the turn events have taken, of course. I just think it’s a little early in the day to wax overly despondent about an NCAA tournament team that returns all five starters. 

BONUS meta note! You, the reader, owe me big kudos and a hearty fist-bump the next time you see me for expressly avoiding the obligatory and cloying “Don’t Bury the Gophers Just Yet!” headline that everyone else in the world would have used. 

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