By now you have probably familiarized yourself with all the gory details of Minnesota’s not as close as the score 70-62 loss to Purdue. It was another loss, and nothing we haven’t seen before. The Gopher’s can’t win a half court game against a quality team playing a quality game. So instead of dwelling on the immediate past, let’s dwell on the slightly more distant past and the future.

Even after two disappointing losses, the Gopher still have a 16-3 record. They aren’t as good as that record indicates, but if you asked anyone who knows anything about basketball what Minnesota’s record would be at this point in the season, it wouldn’t be this good. That being said, the Gophers are not yet one of the elite teams in the country, or even the conference. The national rankings and the publicity were nice, and in the long run beneficial to the program. In the short term, however, all that attention did little more than to mislead our expectations. Yes, the Gophers are an improved team and in an improved conference, but beyond that, probably not much more.

If we judge the Gophers based on this season’s original expectations and goals: don’t drop any easy non-conference home games against inferior competition, win in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, at least be competitive against Louisville, and finish with a .500 or better record in the Big Ten, the Gophers are way ahead of schedule. It was only a month or two ago when our biggest fear was which non-conference loss would make the team a lock for NIT. After 19 games, the Gophers have beaten three quality opponents, and have no bad losses. They swept Iowa and Wisconsin on the road for the first time in recent memory. Most importantly, the Gophers are still on pace to make the NCAA tournament. So what if they won’t win the Big Ten. When did that become a realistic goal?

The Gophers recent losses are not alarming just because they are losses, but because of how they have transpired. Minnesota seems to be back-sliding. The defense is unable to force turnovers, and the offense, well, it occurs when they aren’t playing defense. It has no identity, no strategy, and no tactics. The right players can’t find their right roles, and the Gophers have reverted back to the Dan Monson days.

This team is at a cross-roads. All is not lost, but unless something changes, a lot more games will. We’ve the Gophers at their best and at their worst. Now let’s see some improvement. If the Gophers play like they have the last two games, they still might barely make it to the NCAA tournament. If they can steadily get better, not only will they be on their way to a solid seed, but it will set the stage for what should be a break out season next year, right on schedule.

Here is what to look for the rest of the way:

  1. A coherent offensive strategy. I have no idea what it will be, or what it will look like, but we should know it when we see it.
  2. Find a working rotation. Eight or nine players is depth, more than that is an incoherent mess. For the sake of continuity, Tubby Smith needs to find a core group of players and stick with them. With so many players shuffling in and out, it is no surprise that they look like they have no idea who they are playing with.
  3. Getting the ball inside. Regardless of what Minnesota’s offense ends up looking like, Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III will be a part of it. The two Freshman have stellar shooting percentages by any standard, 53% and 50.5% respectively. Unfortunately, they have both fallen off the map to their teammates. By the end of the year they should be taking a combined 15 shots per game.
  4. Al Nolen’s continued maturation. He has taken a big step since last year, especially on the offensive end, but he is not yet a true team leader. In the Big Ten season his assists are down and his turnovers are up, along with how long he dribbles when the Gophers have the ball. By the end of the season, Nolen should consistently be able to get the ball to his teammates in a position to score.
  5. Win one more game than they shouldn’t. No one gave the Gophers a chance against Louisville, and they won impressively. No one ever gives road teams a chance in the Kohl Center, and Minnesota pulled out a miracle. It might be a bit much to expect the Gophers to beat Michigan State on the road, or Illinois at all, but if they do they should make the tournament.
  6. Don’t lose any shouldn’t. If Minnesota had beat Illinois like everyone else last year, they would have been a lock for the NCAA tournament. The Gophers find themselves in the same situation again this year. If they can win home games against Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Northwestern, and on the road at Indiana, the Gophers would be at .500 in the Big Ten, and thanks to the conference’s improvement, that should be enough to be on the right side of the bubble.
  7. Win one toss up game at Penn State, Michigan, or Ohio State. If the Gophers can do that, there won’t even be bubble talk. The Gophers will be dancing.

The Gophers aren’t a top-25 team. They aren’t one of the best in the conference. They won’t be a top 5 seed either. However, there is still plenty of basketball to be played, plenty of room to improve, and still a great chance to make it to the NCAA tournament. Young teams are unpredictable and have fragile psyches. In other words, even though the Gophers are ahead of schedule, in terms of being a team with five players who before this season had never played a single game of Division I basketball, they are exactly where they should be. They have a long way to go, but are headed in the right direction.