U of M 2011-’12 hoops season begins
By Charles Hallman
Gopher basketball officially begins this week: The women play this Friday afternoon at Arkansas and the men later that evening at home against Bucknell.
Both teams respectively completed their annual two-game exhibition slate. Other than making some money for the host school, these games mean nothing except to eliminate first-game jitters and give coaches something to really evaluate what they have before their teams go against when-it-counts competition.
“I saw some things we need to work on defensively,” notes Men’s Coach Tubby Smith.
“You really want to come out and establish yourself defensively and on the boards in exhibition games,” adds Women’s Coach Pam Borton.
Although the coach says she hasn’t yet settled on her starters, most likely freshman Rachel Banham and senior Kiera Buford will be her backcourt tandem. Sophomore Kionna Kellogg and senior Jackie Voigt most likely are two-thirds of her starting frontcourt, with junior Katie Loberg possibly getting the nod at starting center.
Despite 11 returnees, including three of its top scorers from last season’s 11-18 squad, Borton doesn’t see this year’s club as very experienced. “We are still pretty young,” she notes.
So are the Gophers’ men, whose probable starting backcourt consists of freshman point guard Andre Hollins and sophomore Austin Hollins at shooting guard, seniors Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III, and junior Rodney Williams.
Thus, here are our six questions leading into the season:
1) How “deep” — as in bench strength — are both Gopher teams this season? If sophomore center Maurice Walker is unable to play (he is still recovering from a season-ending knee injury suffered last December), the Gophers men up front will be Charmin soft.
Redshirt freshman center Elliott Eliason thus far hasn’t been impressive. Soph guards Chip Armelin and Maverick Ahanmisi, both of whom saw extended time last season, are both too small to make that much difference, especially when Big Ten time rolls around.
Also, it’s highly questionable if the Gophers, with just “one and a half” men up front — Mbakwe inside and Sampson roaming outside — can improve on last season’s 17-14 mark without more help.
On the women’s side, junior guard Leah Cotton again will be the team’s first player off the bench. The Gophers don’t have anyone else on the bench who can immediately come in and make things happen as the 5-8 player is highly capable of doing.
“Leah is as good as all of our starters,” admits Borton. “It’s great to bring her off the bench, because she makes us a better basketball team when she comes in.”
However, the Minnesota women’s bench is lacking as well, especially in the middle. Sophomore Micaella Riche is still too predictable, although Borton likes her development. “I think Micaella is getting better,” she says of the 6-2 forward.
2) Will Gopher junior forward Rodney Williams finally end his Casper act and stop disappearing during games? This has been the most annoying part of his game in his previous two seasons. Minnesota needs more from him this season than highlight dunks.
3) Can the Williams Arena PA guy stop his stargazing act in regards to Banham? He only announces Banham’s name whenever she makes an assist, but not any other player. Although she has shown a willingness to get the ball to her teammates, the 5-9 player from Lakeville is not Magic (as in Johnson) or Lindsay (as in Whalen).
4) Will Kiera Buford stop relying on jump shots and get to the rack more? This part of her game is still not close to adequate, let alone better than average. Her ball handling is still suspect, which will continue to inhibit her in creating better scoring opportunities for herself and the team. She says that was an emphasis during the off-season, but thus far it hasn’t been noticeable as the 5-11 St. Paul native too often reverts back to her normal stationary mode and stops short of getting into the lane.
5) Will the Gopher women remain shrinking violets or be tougher? “We have to become a tougher team, getting in the lane and wanting contact [on offense],” believes Borton.
6) Will two freshmen, Banham and Andre Hollins, finally solve their respective teams’ point guard needs? Hollins gets the ball where it’s needed, but will he be able to sustain the punishment once Big Ten play rolls around?
Banham, who like Hollins is also quick, will be able to handle college-level play. However, will their teammates be able to keep up with these two?
“I’m looking forward to playing with him,” says Mbakwe of Hollins.
These questions will be answered as the season proceeds.
The WNBA draft lottery is this Thursday. Minnesota expects among the top four picks in next April’s draft.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.