Gophers head to Canada feeling good

August, 31, 2010
Minnesota coach Tubby Smith is in a good place, best he's been in since his surprising move from Kentucky 3½ years ago.

He just finished 10 practices prepping for this week's three-game trip to Vancouver and two of his stars are rid of their previous issues -- one legal, one academic.

Smith is also fresh off a life-changing trip to Africa that included missionary work as well as a once-in-a-lifetime safari experience. And he's a grandfather for the first time as his eldest son G.G., an assistant at Loyola (Md.), and his wife are the new parents of a baby girl.

Tubby SmithAndy Altenburger/Icon SMITubby Smith likes the direction his Minnesota program is headed.

"It's been a great summer, a lot of things have been resolved,'' said Smith on the eve of Tuesday's departure to Canada.

Starting point guard Al Nolen is back after missing most of the Big Ten season once he was declared academically ineligible last January. At the time, the 6-foot-1 junior had averaged 4.6 assists a game and was one of the best on-ball defenders for the Gophers.

Trevor Mbakwe was supposed to be an impact player with the Gophers last season. But he was prevented from playing because of an assault allegation. The felony assault charge came from an incident while he was at Miami-Dade Community College in April 2009. The case took more than a year to be resolved and during that time Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi ruled that the St. Paul native couldn't play until the case was over.

Last week, Mbakwe finally had resolution as he entered a plea in a pre-trial intervention program that allowed the charges to be dropped upon completing 100 hours of community service. (Doing so was not an admission of guilt.) Mbakwe also will make a donation to a shelter for victims of abuse in Florida. An Associated Press story said he expects to finish everything by the time the season starts.

What the Nolan and Mbakwe cases have proved for Smith and Minnesota is that preaching patience with players dealing with off-court issues can be beneficial. There was no need to rush to judgment and dismiss either one from the program.

"There are a lot of lessons to be learned,'' Smith said. "The administration and I learned a lesson.''

Smith said that the players and the staff were constantly asked about Mbakwe and Nolen. Both could have easily bolted. Smith said Mbakwe did have his release and made recruiting visits (including one to Memphis) but decided to stay put.

"It shows a lot about the young man's character to stick through this and come through it,'' Smith said. "He saw that the best thing for him was to stay here and play at the U. He had his release. He checked out other schools. But our fans embraced him. It was a great story. What this can show is how we should work with kids when they're suspended. There is a lot of pressure on people but he was only charged. The charges were dropped. There had to be patience.''

The Gophers also had to deal with whether or not heralded recruit Royce White would ever play for Minnesota. White wasn't allowed to play last season as he waited for resolution on his disorderly conduct and theft cases from an incident at the Mall of America. White had some on-again, off-again statements about whether he would return to Minnesota. Ultimately, his highly publicized case led him to look elsewhere and he has resurfaced at Iowa State.

"We had to deal with distractions and learn how to eliminate them,'' Smith said. "When we lost Al it wasn't just everyone asking me, it was also asking all the players.''

In the recent practices, Nolen and Mbakwe were two of the most significant talents on the court. While Smith won't say it publicly, his staff isn't shy about promoting the frontline of Mbakwe, Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III as one of the top frontcourts in the country. Toss in the return of Rodney Williams, who could be one of the sleeper stars in the Big Ten, and the Gophers have a solid, respectable and impressive rotation of four frontcourt players.

Nolan and Devoe Joseph give the Gophers a solid perimeter defense and sharp-shooter Blake Hoffarber can be a difference-maker with his ability to change a game with 3s.

"Trevor is so hungry after sitting out a year and he's what we were lacking,'' Smith said. "We had a tough time rebounding the ball. We've added some real depth and strength. Last year, we had [then seniors] Damian Johnson and Paul Carter at 6-7 playing power forwards with no true center. With Royce White and Trevor not being able to play, we were limited.

"We fought and scratched and clawed and overachieved and underachieved at times. We got to the Big Ten championship game -- something this school has never done -- and we got to the NCAAs (for the second consecutive season) when everyone thought we were NIT-bound. The goal this year is that we should compete for the Big Ten title.''

That would be quite an accomplishment considering the league includes national title contenders Michigan State and Purdue, as well as two other teams -- Ohio State and Illinois -- that could lay claim to being conference-title contenders. And don't dare dismiss Wisconsin and the Badgers' ability to be a factor for a top-three finish.

The Gophers return from Canada later this week in preparation for what could be a program-turning season for Smith. They have a real shot to disrupt the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in November if they get past Western Kentucky in the first round and knock off North Carolina in the second round. West Virginia and Vanderbilt are the marquee teams on the other side of the bracket.

As far as conference play goes, opening up the Big Ten at Michigan State and Wisconsin (and then at Ohio State after a home game against Indiana) will give the Gophers little room to wiggle.

"I've never seen a conference so good get so few players drafted,'' said Smith of the Big Ten's lone pick -- No. 2 Ohio State's Evan Turner. "That tells me one thing -- there's a lot of good players returning.''

And Mbakwe and Nolen are definitely two of them.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer


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