Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Good Test Ahead for Gopher Cagers

After three blowouts against second-rate opponents, the Gopher basketball team heads out west to meet its first real challenges of the 2009-10 season. Thursday's opener in the 76 Classic in Anaheim pits the Gophers against #10 Butler.

The Gophers, ranked #16 in this week's USA Today/ESPN poll, have rolled over inferior competition thus far. Against Tennessee Tech, Stephen F. Austin, and Utah Valley, Minnesota has rolled by an average score of 82-48 and has displayed solid hustle and defense one would expect from Tubby Smith-coached teams. Freshman forward Rodney Williams has impressed thus far, averaging 15 points and 3 boards in his first collegiate action. Part of the heralded recruiting class Smith obtained for this season, Williams was rated behind fellow freshman Royce White in many circles, but White's indefinite suspension has opened the door for Williams to display his tremendous athletic skills. Also impressive thus far has been the play of sophomore guard Devoe Joseph. Often erratic in his freshman season, Joseph has averaged 10 points, 2.7 assists, and 2.3 rebounds this young season. Seniors Lawrence Westbrook (18.5 points) and Damian Johnson (11.7 points, 3.7 assists, 3.0 rebounds) have provided exactly what could have been expected from team leaders, and sophomore Ralph Sampson III (8.7 points, 8.0 boards) and junior Paul Carter (7 points, 4.7 rebounds) have also been solid. The Gophers have not missed suspended players White, Trevor Mbakwe, or Devron Bostick much this season. However, with the level of competition improving, having those three in the mix would be nice.

Horizon League power Butler also enters play 3-0. However, the three games have been struggles for the Bulldogs. After rallying for a season-opening victory over a Stephon Curry-less Davidson club, Butler struggled against Northwestern before beating the Cats in Evanston and then survived against Evansville Saturday night. Of course, two of those three victories came on the road, which represents reality for a mid-major. Butler is basically an eight-man team who relies on a balanced scoring attack with an attacking defense. Sophomores Gordon Hayward (15.3 points; 8 boards) and Shelvin Mack (13 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds) lead the Bulldogs' scoring attack, and Willie Veasley and Matt Howard each have averaged 9.7 points per game in this young season.

Butler will represent a good early-season test for this Gopher club. Minnesota is definitely the most athletic team Butler has seen thus far and will pose many problems for the Bulldogs. If Rodney Williams can get any room whatsoever to attack the basket, he would have a huge game for Minnesota, and the 76 Classic could be his national coming-out party. Westbrook's and Johnson's experience also should help carry Minnesota over a less-experience Butler squad. Athleticism should win out in the 76 Classic opener, and this is definitely a game the Gophers should win.

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