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published Tuesday, May 10th - 8:47pm



There's not much else occurring on the local sports scene, so I had the urge to offer this a mere six months in advance of their first game:

I'm thinking the basketball Gophers - male version - have a chance to put a respectable club on the elevated floor next season.

Yes, I was the guy who wrote here not long ago that Tubby Smith rated as the biggest flop ever among the few big-name coaches teams have brought to Minnesota over the past 50 years.

That's based on his first four seasons - a period that includes no NCAA (or NIT) victories. By comparison, Clem Haskins, hired from Western Kentucky, not the big Kentucky, had five NCAA victories after four seasons at Minnesota.

The Gophers' collapse at the end of last season was unfathomable. They won one game after Jan. 26. They closed the Big Ten schedule with nine losses in 10 games, then went out in the first round of the Big Ten tournament with a loss to Northwestern.

Any season that ends with a loss to Northwestern is a full-scale embarrassment.

There were reasons beyond the futile finish to suspect that Smith's program was becoming unglued. Colton Iverson, the big man from South Dakota, decided to transfer, even though he had only one season of eligibility remaining.

When a junior transfers, he seriously wants to get away from a coach and a program.

There was also speculation that Smith's best player, Trevor Mbakwe, was going to enter the NBA draft. It should be pointed out all of this speculation came from the media and fans. There was no real indication from Mbakwe that he was going to leave.

There was also the surprise announcement that Ralph Sampson III had put his name into the draft hopper. Sampson has been the object of considerable ridicule from the Williams Arena regulars, and this gave them more ammunition to fire away at Ralph the Third.

The fact is that Sampson's an asset as a Big Ten player, and his decision this week to withdraw from the draft at the last minute was good news for the Gophers. There aren't many clubs that will have a big-man combination to equal Mbakwe and Sampson.

With Iverson gone, Sampson will be able to spend more time operating down low with Mbakwe. As a senior with pro ambitions, he might muscle a few more opponents and lose some of his passive reputation.

As for Mbakwe, he's a Big Ten beast. Period.

The other big men that Smith will have to draw on will be the 6-10 Maurice Walker, injured early in his freshman season, and 6-11 redshirt freshman Elliott Eliason.

That should be plenty of depth behind Sampson and Mbakwe.

Rodney Williams will be entering his junior season and it has to be time for him to get his act together. Presumably, he will be allowed to play the position where he fits - small forward - rather than his failed effort to be a shooting guard.

He wound up there after the transfer of Devoe Joseph and the injury to Al Nolen Jr. That put Blake Hoffarber in the uncomfortable position of trying to play point guard.

Announcing a starting lineup of Mbakwe, Sampson, Iverson, Williams and Hoffarber was impressive from a height standpoint, but when they tried to function offensively ... ugly stuff.

This time, Williams will get his minutes at small forward, with redshirt freshman Oto Osenieks as a projected backup.

Smith will have a collection of guards to audition: Austin Hollins, Chip Armelin and Maverick Ahanmisi, last season's freshmen, as well as Joe Coleman and Andre Hollins, next season's freshmen.

Tubby also brought in two JUCOs in the spring: 6-3 Julian Welch from Yuba [Cal.] and 6-7 Andre Ingram from Butler [Kan.]. Ingram played high school ball for Minnesota Transitions and will be a backup at forward.

Welch claims to be a point guard. The Gophers are hoping that Andre Hollins can play there. And Ahanmisi should be more under control than during his shifts as a freshman.

The Gophers will be loaded at shooting guard with Austin Hollins, Coleman and Armelin. From here, Hollins had the most upside of the freshman guards last season. Everyone who watched Coleman at Hopkins is a fan of the kid. And Armelin was high-energy and occasionally dynamic even as things unraveled last season.

I'm thinking Tubby's outfit should be pretty good next winter. If not, last year's grumbling in The Barn could turn to flat-out hostility.