Gophers men’s basketball

Things I learned from a Gophers pickup game

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

Today, I watched Minnesota’s NCAA-allotted two-hour weekly practice session. Before I write up my assessment of what I saw, understand that the Gophers played pick up ball, which is often a poor indicator of the way someone will carry themselves in a real game. In front of 15,000 fans. With a potential postseason bid on the line. On a team looking for an “extra” scholarship.

Ralph Sampson III, Colton Iverson, Devoe Joseph, Blake Hoffarber and Paul Carter beat Devron Bostick, Damian Johnson, Al Nolen, Jon Williams and Kevin Payton in the only five-on-five game of the morning.

Overall, the Gophers looked like the young team that they are. But they have more depth than last season’s team with a solid recruiting class. And the Big Ten is, once again, wide open. So anything’s posssible.

Here are the things I learned about every player that participated in the morning workout at Williams Arena:

Paul Carter, F – First, Carter is not 6-8. He’s much closer to 6-6. But the Missouri State-West Plains CC product was the most intriguing guy on the court. Sources told me that he would be the surprise of the incoming recruiting class. And I understand why. He has solid ballhandling ability, and he has very good body control. He doesn’t force his shots. And he’s a decent shooter and good passer. On a fast break, he caught a behind-the-back bounce pass for Devoe Joseph and went up strong with his left hand.

Blake Hoffarber, G – His challenges remain. His assets are still there, too. Don’t expect Hoffarber to peform miracles off the dribble. With a wide open lane, he bobbled the ball before Devron Bostick rose up and blocked his layup attempt. But from the perimeter, he was money. The black, Allen Iverson sleeve he wore on his right arm may have helped, too.

Jon Williams, C – Williams told me that he lost “25 or 30″ pounds during the offseason. He moved well. Streaking down the court, Williams finished with a thunderous one-hand dunk, as Ralph Sampson III trailed him. But in a pickup game, it was hard to tell if his defense improved over the summer. That’s where he struggled most. And that’s where the Gophers need him most.

Devoe Joseph, G – The freshman has a decent jumper. He showed off his sharp passing ability and a nice 13-foot jump shot.  He needs to take a weight room class this semester to build up his body, but he’s too skilled to stay off the court. Al Nolen’s the point man for the Gophers, but Joseph will be a solid backup for him.

Al Nolen, G – He’s bigger. He’s stronger. And he’s more vocal. I get the sense that the Gophers really look at Nolen as a leader in Year 2. He’s probably the most important player on the team. The thing I noticed about him this morning was the power he had when he drove to the lane. His quick hands made it hard for anyone to get a pass by him. He still needs to develop a more consistent jumper, but I expect a big improvement from Nolen on the offensive end.

Damian Johnson, F – Johnson didn’t really showcase his talent, choosing to step back and shoot jumpers for most of morning. His rebounding ability, shooting and defense have all improved. And he’s put on weight. He hit a few deep threes, but the Gophers will probably need him to play a lot in the paint this season.

Colton Iverson, F – He had class, so he only played one game. The thing you notice about Colton Iverson right away is his size. Whenever you read a preseason magazine or a media guide, it’s usually OK to knock one or two inches off of a player’s “listed” height. But Iverson is definitely 6-11. He’s very physical. And for that reason alone, he should get a significant amount of playing time this season.

Ralph Sampson III, C - It’s the little things that count. Sampson did a lot of little things in this morning’s pickup games. Rebounding. Dunks. Solid defense. He’ll need some time to put on more weight, but I think he’s ready for the reserve role that Tubby Smith will probably ask him to play this season. After one Sampson dunk, the backboard was still shaking as he ran up the court. And he played honest defense against Williams, whom he’ll probably back up.

Travis Busch, G/F – He sat out the first game and played with a lot of energy in the second game. His best bet to earn minutes is to play scrappy defense and hustle every time he steps on the floor. He had a good summer in the Howard Pulley League. And Smith will probably call on him to help out a team that’s still searching for better on-the-ball defenders.

Devron Bostick, G/F – He can light it up. He’s a true scorer. He hit a few deep threes. He still has to work on his defense. And he has to develop into a more consistent shooter. He’s a legit 6-4 or 6-5, which makes him even tougher to guard.

Kevin Payton, G/F – He’s the guy that will probably have the toughest time finding a niche on this team. He won’t earn minutes because of his size. And the guard and forward rotations are set. But he played solid defense this morning, and Smith will probably insert him in certain situations because of it.

Lawrence Westbrook and Jamal Abu-Shamala did not play due to injuries.

Rodney Williams is a Gopher

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

I just received this text message from Robbinsdale Cooper forward Rodney Williams’ mother: “The deal is done. He is a Gopher.”

Williams visited Santa Clara over the weekend and was expected to make a decision when he returned today or Monday. Williams becomes the third member of Tubby Smith’s second recruiting class, which includes California point guard Justin Cobbs and Hopkins forward Royce White.

Tubby Smith talks about his nephew’s death

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

Tubby Smith statement regarding the loss of his nephew:

“I want to thank everyone for keeping my family in their thoughts and prayers during this very difficult time. We lost a special young man last night. The grieving process will take some time for my brother and his family but I know that they appreciate and will need all the support.”

AAU coach: Family “99.9 percent sure” Williams will commit to Gophers

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

Now that the Gophers have locked up Justin Cobbs, a player comparable to Chicago point guard and Minnesota recruit Darius Smith, their next target, Rodney Williams, appears to be on the brink of joining his AAU teammate Royce White by committing to the Gophers in the near future.

Multiple reports suggest that after Williams takes a trip to Santa Clara next weekend, he’ll make a decision. Rene Pulley, Williams’ AAU coach, talked to Williams’ father after his weekend trip to Minnesota and he said that his family is “99.9 percent sure” that their son will play for the Gophers next season. He said Williams and his family loved everything about their trip and the program.

Williams, a 6-5 wing from Robbinsdale Cooper, Hopkins forward White and California point guard Justin Cobbs would give the Gophers a solid young core that would also include current freshmen Ralph Sampson III, combo guard Devoe Joseph and power forward Colton Iverson III.

Rodney Williams’ Mom Knows Best

Friday, September 19th, 2008

I’ve talked to a lot of people about Robbinsdale Cooper star forward Rodney Williams. Coaches, teammates and mentors have all given me their two cents about him.

But when his mother called this afternoon, I came away from the conversation feeling like I’d had the most genuine conversation about him, only a few hours before he takes his official visit to Minnesota. Shanell Williams knows the stakes. If the 6-5 Williams commits to the Gophers between now and next spring, Tubby Smith will have one of the top recruiting classes in recent Gophers history. That’s why this weekend is one of the biggest weekends of Smith’s tenure. If he can convince Williams and California point guard Justin Cobbs to play for the Gophers beginning next season, he’ll have the kind of young core that tends to dance in March. If the two, especially Williams, turn the Gophers down, Smith will have to spend another spring scrambling for a player.

But Shanell Williams wants to be sure that Smith and every other coach interested in her son knows that she rarely believes the hype. She said she wants Rodney to sign with a school that offers him a chance to get a good education. She wants a coach who will be there for her son during good times and bad. And she wants a coach who will keep his word and not make promises that he can’t deliver.

When Rodney’s family visits the Gophers this weekend, it will have a lot of questions for Smith and his staff. But Shanell Williams doesn’t believe Rodney will commit this weekend because he wants to take his time. She also said that the widely held belief that Royce White’s commitment to the Gophers will affect Rodney’s decision isn’t true. White’s commitment will be “a bonus” if Rodney signs, but she insists that he’s not going to base his decision off of someone else’s. Shanell Williams said Rodney has had a good start academically this year and doesn’t foresee any problems with him getting into whatever school he picks.

If all of this sounds like an ominous report for Gophers fans, there’s plenty for them to be excited about. Rodney’s mom said she’d like her son to stay close to home. And, she’s been a fan of Smith’s for a long time. “I watched Tubby every time I could when I was growing up,” she said. “I am, personally, a Tubby fan. I think he’s a great coach, not just as far as a winning coach but as far as teaching young men.”

This weekend, the Gophers will also be courting Justin Cobbs, a 6-1 speedy point guard from Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance, Calif., who led his team to a state title last season. His head coach, Doug Mitchell, told me that although the Gophers are high on Cobbs’ list, he probably won’t commit this weekend because he promised Iowa that he’d take a trip there next weekend.

In other news …

-Sources tell me that the Gophers’ first round of workouts have gone well. Devoe Joseph is in great shape, but he’ll need some time to develop. Jon Williams has slimmed down and looks ready to take over at the five spot. Colton Iverson’s teammates like his physicality. And Paul Carter could be the surprise of Tubby’s recruiting class. One source compares Carter to Lamar Odom and says he’s probably the second- or third-best ball handler on the team.

-While the Gophers were out West checking out Justin Cobb earlier this week, they stopped by Findlay Prep in Nevada, where Devoe Joseph’s brother, Cory, will play this season. Minnesota is analyzing about a half-dozen potential recruits from the school.

Tubby Smith is meeting with Darius Smith right now

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

I know because I just talked to Chicago prep point guard Darius Smith, one of Minnesota’s top recruits. Smith told me Thursday afternoon that he’s watching film of last season’s state championship game, which the 6-1 player’s Chicago Marshall High School won, with Tubby Smith. When I asked him about the Gophers, he sounded excited about the possibility of playing at Minnesota. “So far, so good,” he said about Tubby Smith’s trip to Chicago thus far.

Smith said he will narrow down his list of schools Saturday. He wouldn’t name any schools that might make the final cut, but he said he’s sure that Minnesota will be on his list. Multiple coaches are expected to visit Smith in the coming days. Minnesota, Marquette, DePaul and Bradley have all offered Smith scholarships. He visited Minnesota last weekend but left the campus without committing, but he said he thinks he’d like “the college life” at the U if he decided to go there.

Smith, a three-star recruit according to, averaged 18 points, seven rebounds, six assists and nine steals (not a typo) last season for Chicago’s Marshall High School, the same school that “Hoop Dreams” stars Arthur Agee and William Gates attended.

Smith, who described himself as a “true point,” said Minnesota’s style of play and coaching staff are similar to Marshall’s. He also thinks he’ll have a chance to learn from Minnesota’s older guards.

“Man, it’s like … they play the same style of play that I do. [They're] up the court, defensive wise,” he said.

Smith’s high school coach Courtney Hargrays called Smith a “throwback” who leads his team in many ways. “I don’t see too many people that [do] everything,” Hargrays said. Hargrays said Smith plans to sign with a school during the early signing period.

Minnesota hopes to land Smith and Robbinsdale Cooper’s Rodney Williams. The Gophers lost four potential post players when Hopkins’ Mike Broghammer, Osseo’s Sam Dower, Colorado center Trevor Williams and Georgia power forward Torin Walker chose other schools over the weekend.

Paging Rodney Williams and … Trevor MBakwe?

Monday, September 8th, 2008

It’s time for the Gophers to reach out to Trevor MBakwe, after three post players from the ’09 class chose other schools over the weekend.  Osseo’s Sam Dower (Gonzaga), Hopkins’ Mike Broghammer (Notre Dame), Colorado seven-footer Trevor Williams (Colorado State) and Georgian Torin Walker (Oklahoma State) all committed to colleges not named Minnesota over the last 48 hours.

MBakwe, who recently enrolled at Miami Dade Community College after leaving Marquette last month, only plans to stay at the junior college for a year. And sources told me that the Gophers were in contact with MBakwe after he chose to leave Marquette. They advised him to enroll in a junior college for a year, which will give them more time to assess him. But, he’s one of the few viable options for the Gophers right now. The Gophers were expecting both Walker and Williams to take official visits later this month.

But Minnesota’s still in good shape. With Royce White already committed, the Gophers only need Cooper’s Rodney Williams to sign to have another good recruiting class. And according to Williams’ mother, he’s keeping his options open and has not narrowed down his list of schools. If Minnesota can get him to join his AAU teammate White and Chicago point guard Darius Smith, who visited over the weekend and favors Minnesota, Tubby Smith will have another top recruiting class under this belt.

Midnight Madness to be held Oct. 17 or 19

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

The Gophers will host their version of Midnight Madness Oct. 17 or 19, according to Gophers spokesman Matt Slieter. The start time for the event has not been set.

College programs around the country host Midnight Madness events to coincide with the first day that teams are allowed to practice.

The Gophers have one too many freebies

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

When I opened my e-mail Wednesday and clicked on the release that included Minnesota’s 2008-09 schedule, I wasn’t shocked, but I was a bit confused. A year ago, Tubby Smith said that he wanted a tougher schedule but because he’d arrived last spring, he didn’t have an opportunity to adjust last season’s the way he wanted to. But the upcoming season includes games against High Point, Southeastern Louisiana, Eastern Washington and …. Concordia-St. Paul, a Division II school?

I called Smith about an hour ago and he told me that he wanted some tougher opponents on the schedule, but they were hard to find. Smith said more and more schools are hesitant to add potentially tough nonconference games to their slates because so many conferences have extended their league schedules in recent years. He compared it to the trend in college football, where Big Ten teams routinely play schools like Florida Atlantic, Youngstown State and Akron in what are supposed to be sparring sessions before the Big Ten season starts. Example: Smith said Tennessee probably wishes it wouldn’t have gone to UCLA Monday.

Smith also said he wanted a nonconference schedule that would give a young Gophers team a chance to ease into a tough Big Ten schedule. Minnesota plays Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue and Gophers-Neutralizer Illinois a total of nine times. “If we do what we’re supposed to do, everything will take care of itself,” Smith said about the team’s NCAA tourney hopes. “But we have to prove ourselves on the court.”

Sources told me Concordia-St. Paul wasn’t a part of anyone’s original plans, but they were added because the Gophers struggled to find opponents for their season-opening NABC Classic tournament at Williams Arena. Georgia State is on the schedule because the Gophers have agreed to go to Georgia State in the coming years, which will give Atlanta-area native Ralph Sampson III a chance to go home.

Without a top four finish in the Big Ten, this team will have a tough time getting into the NCAA tourney with a soft nonconference schedule, which includes one true road game. I’m not saying they can’t do it (a nonconference win against Louisville and an early conference victory against Ohio State or Michigan State would help), I just think they’ll have to avoid numerous mistakes from last season, rebound far better than they did a year ago and hope that five new players quickly adjust to Division I basketball in a physical, well-coached league. But they definitely have enough talent to land on the tourney bubble. But the nonconference schedule won’t help matters.

Don’t agree with me? Well, Jerry Palm, the creator of, does. Here’s what he had to say about Minnesota’s schedule:

“It’s the kind of schedule that requires you to go 11-7 in the league to have a chance to even get a discussion with the committee. Louisville is the only non-conf opponent that gets your attention, although I don’t know off the top of my head what to expect from Virginia.”

Chicago point guard, Royce White to visit U this weekend

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

Darius Smith, a three-star point guard from Chicago, and Royce White, a Hopkins forward who gave the Gophers a verbal commitment earlier this year, will both take their official visits to Minnesota this weekend, according to sources.

Rodney Williams is scheduled to take his official visit to the university Sept. 19.