By Jon Rothstein
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Trevor Mbakwe could wind up being the best power forward in college basketball.
He’s got the size (six-foot-eight), the build (245 pounds) and most of all the ability to tally a double-double on a nightly basis for Minnesota.
But Mbakwe, who missed the bulk of last season with a torn ACL, wouldn’t start for the Golden Gophers if the season started today.
“Right now, he’d probably come off the bench as our sixth man,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said recently about Mbakwe. “We played pretty good basketball last year after we lost Trevor, and Rodney Williams proved he was really effective when he slid over to power forward. That’s probably the way we’d start things right now, but we’ve got a lot of options. The depth on this team is overwhelming. I’m going to play 10-12 guys. This is the deepest team I’ve ever had in my coaching career.”
The Gophers have all the requisites to finish in the top portion of the Big Ten, and they’ll be even better than people anticipate if a pair of young guards, Andre and Austin Hollins, continue to blossom as they did down the stretch of last season when Minnesota reached the finals of the postseason NIT.
Andre Hollins averaged 16.8 points per game over the Gophers’ final nine games of last year and could be in for a breakout year as a sophomore.
“He’s so talented,” Smith said of Andre Hollins. “He’s the reason we won six out of our last eight games. He’s capable. He just needs to do a better job taking care of the ball. He and Austin give us the makeup for a really good backcourt. Austin has gotten stronger and is now a legit six-foot-five. He’s really coming on. He’s our do-it-all guy and our best defender.”
Veterans Julian Welch, Joe Coleman and Maverick Ahanmisi also return on the perimeter, giving Smith five backcourt pieces that have tangible game experience.
With Mbakwe, Williams and sophomore Ellott Eliason all in the fold up front, Minnesota’s going to be in immediate position to put known commodities on the floor in November and December.
“Elliott is vastly improved and will be our starting center,” Smith said of the six-foot-11 Eliason. “The guy, though, that’s going to give us another dimension is Maurice Walker. He missed last year with an injury, but he’s probably our most intelligent player, and he’s a big body at 6-foot-10, 295 pounds. He’s got good hands and he’s really mobile for his size.”
Smith also expects freshmen Charles Buggs and Wally Ellenson to get an opportunity for minutes as well as senior Andre Ingram and skilled sophomore Oto Osenieks, a six-foot-eight forward whom Smith says “has a Robbie Hummel type feel to his game”.
“Oto can really stretch the defense,” Smith said. “He’s got that European element in his arsenal. Wally Ellenson is a real gym rat. He’s a workaholic who loves being in the gym, and Charles Buggs really reminds me of Rodney Williams when Rodney was a freshman, except he handles the ball a little bit better.”
It’s never easy for a coach to play almost everyone on his roster, but Smith seems committed to using as many pieces as he can. Williams and Mbakwe have never really meshed when playing together at small and power forward, but maybe after Williams’ emergence last season at the four there is a chance Smith could opt to play Mbakwe in spurts at center in an effort to play at a quicker pace.
Either way, Minnesota figures to be right in the mix among the top third of teams in the Big Ten — as long as they can keep everyone on the floor.
“We’ve had good teams the last three years, we just haven’t been able to keep everyone healthy,” Smith said. “It’s miserable dealing with injuries, and we’ve had plenty here recently. If we can avoid that and use our depth, I really like this team. I’m excited about all the options we have, as well as our young players.”
Does Minnesota have a chance to take the Big 10 this season? Offer your thoughts in the comments section below…