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Looking at Minnesota

The good people at the S.S. Paging Jim Shikenjanski and I have gotten into contact with each other, and we decided it'd be much easier for us to write about our own teams to give a little preview to the readers of each site. So, without further adieu, here's some insight on that team to the north from Paging Jim Shijen...shiska....shijen.....something.

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It's a new era for Minnesota Gophers basketball. Tubby Smith, in his subdued way, has taken Minnesota by storm and has in the matter of months awakened a once disinterested fanbase.

And many Minnesota basketball fans are looking to this next three game stretch as a way to measure just how much impact Tubby will have during this first season, where the vast majority of last year's roster--which posted a disappointing 9-22 record--is back for another run in the Big Ten.

That three game run starts Tuesday at Iowa State and concludes with a trip to Tallahassee with a game against Florida State. But since I'm writing this for Iowa State fans, I assume you might want to know what to expect from the Golden Gophers.

The season opening win against Army was an impressive debut for Minnesota, especially if you consider senior Lawrence McKenzie, the team's leading scorer a year ago, only scored two points in the season debut. If the Gophers are to be an average Big Ten team this year, they'll need McKenzie to produce. But the fact that the Gophers were able to score without him indicates that this group of Gophers can be far more competent than last year's offensively challenged version of marron and gold ballers.

McKenzie is joined in the starting five by two other solid seniors. Senior Spencer Tollackson is a capable center, with size, heart and the offensive wherwithal to be a factor. Senior Dan Coleman plays more like a small forward, tending to play on the perimiter where he can hit the three point shot and use his quickness to take slower power forwards off the dribble. But Coleman's outside game hurts Minnesota on the glass, where last season the Gophers were beat up by more physical Big Ten competition.

Coleman, McKenzie and Tollackson were the sure things coming into the season. And after one game, many questions remain. Kevin Payton, a tall, relatively slow-footed point guard, got the start against Army. But he has drawn the ire of many Minnesota fans for his ball-handling and many fans are calling for increased minutes for freshman point guard Al Nolen, who has impressed in playing time during the exhibition season and against Army.

Filling in the scoring gap in the Army win was Damian Johnson, who used his lanky frame to be the surprise star in the opening win. Johnson gave the team the rebounding punch it needed off the bench and used his wingspan to influence a number of shots. The Gophers need Johnson to contribute off the bench, and for spot-shooters Jamal Abu-Shamala and Blake Hoffarber to hit the open shot to be a competitive team.

The season opener against Army indicated to Minnesota fans that Tubby's Gophers will play a more up-tempo basketball game. The Monson-led Gophers were destroyed on many occasions by even lacakadasical presses. It was a pleasant surprise to see Tubby's crew exerting a little of its own pressure. It'll be intersting to see how much Tubby presses a more talented Cyclones team.

Overall, Minnesota fans couldn't be more ecstatic about the beginning to the 2007-08 campaign. And Tubby has delivered with a consensus top-30 recruiting class. On Saturday, we'll know whether we should temper our expectations for this season or if Tubby has been able to take one of the worst team's in Minnesota basketball history and made a competitior out of it.