Devron Bostick comes to Minnesota as the reigning junior-college Player of the Year, Ralph Sampson III is the son of the former Virginia star and Colton Iverson is raw but gives Smith another big body he desperately needs.
The wild card of the class might be Paul Carter, a tweener who has been the early surprise in practice. He's listed at 6-8, but in reality is closer to 6-6. If he can find a spot on the floor, he can produce.
Add that new blood to a core group of returners that includes an outside threat (Blake Hoffarber), a slasher (Lawrence Westbrook, Jr.) and a ball handler (Al Nolen), and it's easy to see why Smith feels he is improved despite losing leading scorers Dan Coleman (11.6 ppg), Lawrence McKenzie (11.8) and Spencer Tollackson (9.3).
"I expect to be competitive in every game and have a chance to win every game," Smith said. "We didn't give ourselves a chance in some games last year."
While the NCAA tournament isn't completely out of reach this season, it shouldn't be a realistic goal. But the Gophers aren't far away, and if they win a couple of the right games, they very well just might be playing meaningful games this March.
STRENGTHS: Tubby Smith always stresses defense, and the added athleticism this season should allow the Gophers to comply.
WEAKNESSES: The only two "bigs" are Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson, and both are raw freshmen. Sampson is more polished, while Iverson is a strong banger. After that, the Gophers get small quickly. Paul Carter might get forced into the post even though he's listed at 6-8 and is really more like 6-6. Aside from Hoffarber, Minnesota doesn't have any consistent threats from the outside. Jamal Abu-Shamala has shown potential, but he averaged just 3.4 points in 13 minutes a game last season. Another shooter must develop to clear the lane for Sampson and Westbrook's drives.
SCOUTING THE NEWCOMERS: Ralph Sampson III — The biggest name in the recruiting class and the son of the former Virginia star. At 6-foot-11, Sampson becomes the biggest body on the team and immediately steps into the starting lineup.
KEY EARLY SEASON GAMES: The Gophers' two biggest non-conference games are both at home: Virginia on Dec. 2 and Louisville on Dec. 20. Virginia was a .500 team last year but struggled in the ACC (five wins) and might do even worse this year. Louisville should be a notch below the top tier in the Big East, which is still very good by college basketball standards. Minnesota should have little trouble with the Cavaliers, and if Tubby Smith can steal a win against former in-state rival Rick Pitino, the Gophers could chew up valuable RPI points and set themselves up for an interesting conference season.
PROGRAM DIRECTION: In just his second season, Tubby Smith has Minnesota positioned to be a player again in the Big Ten. The Gophers are on the verge of being a tournament team, and an NIT bid is certainly within reach. Even though it likely won't be them, don't be surprised if the Gophers have a say in who wins the Big Ten championship.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP: G Al Nolen, G Lawrence Westbrook, Jr., F Devron Bostick, F Damian Johnson, C Ralph Sampson III
LAST YEAR: 20-14 overall, 8-14 Big Ten, lost to Maryland in first round of NIT.
HEAD COACH: Tubby Smith (career 407-159), second year at Minnesota (20-14).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We feel like we've been able to get a lot done since we've gotten here. We're excited, but the foundation was laid by the previous staff. We're very fortunate to land the class we landed." — coach Tubby Smith, on his highly regarded recruiting class led by Ralph Sampson III and Devron Bostick.