Team preview: Minnesota

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Coming off their first trip to the NCAA Tournament under Dan Monson, last year's Golden Gophers looked to make it two in a row and build some momentum for the future.

Instead, a drastically overhauled roster was nagged by injuries, never jelled, stumbled out of the starting blocks in the Big Ten season, and limped to an early exit in the NIT.

Monson dodged rumors of his firing, but now faces one of the toughest tasks of his Minnesota tenure: sculpting a team out of a roster with only four players who have seen Big Ten action. Three others practiced with the team last year -- a transfer and two red-shirt freshmen -- while two junior college imports and two freshmen will also look to carve out a role on the team. But clearly Monson has his work cut out for him this season.

"It's just a matter of how quickly guys adapt," Monson said about the key to developing a nucleus with this group. "Obviously all of them aren't going to play right away, but you can't play with just four guys. Will it be a couple of the recruits? A couple of the guys who sat out? As a coach, that's exciting. It will be a lot like it was two years ago when Vincent Grier emerged. We had no idea before that season that he would turn out the way he did."

Indeed, the Gophers will need somebody to make an unexpected leap like Grier did when he came to Minnesota out of Dixie State Junior College in 2004. After earning All-Big Ten honors as a junior, Grier took a step back last year, when he was hampered by a broken hand during non-conference play. Still, he led the team in scoring and ended up with respectable numbers (15.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.6 apg in 25 games) and nobody on the roster appears on the verge of replacing those stats immediately.

The Gophers also lost four other seniors -- point guard Adam Boone (10.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.7 apg), swingman Mo Hargrow (11.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.9 apg), power forward J'son Stamper (6.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.0 spg) and post Zach Puchtel (2.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, .553 FG) -- as well as sophomore point guard Rico Tucker (4.5 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 1.1 apg), who transferred to Pepperdine after two frustrating seasons in Minneapolis.

All told, that's 75 percent of the starts and 67 percent of the team's scoring punch gone in one season. And that leaves a big opportunity for multiple Gophers to step up and fill the void.

Puchtel's story was one of the more interesting in the country. He started his collegiate career playing football at Harvard, then transferred to Minnesota as a walk-on with the basketball team. A true blue-collar type, Puchtel didn't see many minutes until the Gophers followed a 9-2 start by losing their first six Big Ten games. That's when Monson decided it was time to reward the hardest working player on the team, and Puchtel emerged into a defensive stalwart and a rock on the boards by the end of the season.

"One of the things as a coach you're always preaching is that you've got to do the little things, be tougher, rebound, make sacrifices on the floor," Monson said. "But you can only talk about it for so long -- pretty soon you have to back it up. Zach was one of the guys who did that in practice, and we threw him in almost to prove a point that we're serious about doing the little things, and he did prove that point."

Monson also had to reintegrate Boone and Hargrow into the lineup after each had sat out the previous season -- Boone on an injury red-shirt year, and Hargrow after he had transferred from Minnesota to Arkansas and then back to Minnesota in 2004. Couple that upheaval with injuries to Grier, Hargrow and Stamper, and the loss of three "glue" guys -- departed seniors Aaron Robinson, Jeff Hagen and Brent Lawson -- and the lineup never really did come together.

After falling short of the NCAAs, Monson is keeping a positive outlook about the program this year, even with his decidedly inexperienced lineup.

"We've got to be more consistent -- that was the tale of last year's season. If we were more consistent, we'd have been to the NCAAs two years in a row," he said. "This year, it's going to take consistent effort, and we'll have to do it with different players. Last year, we had a good nucleus back, and this year we don't have it. But the good news is we don't have any seniors, so if we're a good team this year, we'll have all of those guys back."