Time to exhale.

After a whirlwind opening to the 2010-11 season, the Gophers (#15 in the AP Poll!) have a couple days off before resuming their non-conference schedule against North Dakota State, which provides us an opportunity to sit back and analyze exactly what we have in the current squad.

While it wasn’t crazy to think that Gophers could win the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Tournament, few expected the team to actually pull off the consecutive victories over North Carolina and West Virginia.  In fact, not only did the team beat both nationally recognized squads, they looked really good doing it.

I’ll rewind to last year, where several times the team just folded down the stretch, played scared and ultimately gave the game away.  The maturity just did not seem to be there.  They’d give away a 10-point lead in the last five minutes due to turnovers and poor shooting and would not show the same intensity they were capable of during the first 3/4 of the game.  So far this season, that has not been the case.

In fact, it’s been the exact opposite.  Down the stretch in close games this season, the team has stayed under control, executed according to their strengths and fought back against surges put forth by their opponents.  In short, they don’t panic; and panic was something that plagued them last year.

A big part of this success so far is due to the presence of Al Nolen, who looks like the floor general the team has lacked over the past couple years.  Al hasn’t panicked one bit this season and doesn’t get overcome by emotion (paging Lawrence Westbrook).  He directs the ball traffic and isn’t afraid to take it to the rack and pick up a foul doing so.  He’s not the most offensively-gifted guy on the floor, but he doesn’t need to be.  And the quality of his defense is still underrated, somehow.  Last year there was talk that maybe his defense was overrated, which is ridiculous.  After West Virginia’s Casey Mitchell ripped off 15 quick points early in the game in Puerto Rico, Nolen was given the assignment of guarding him.  The result? Mitchell only scored 12 points the rest of the game.

Perhaps the most impressive part of this early season run has been the fact that Devoe Joseph hasn’t played a part in any of it, which makes you wonder just how much better this team can be.  A couple things the team is currently missing is someone who can create their own shot and fill in at point guard.  Joseph does both of these things.  Blake Hoffarber can shoot, but he can’t really dribble.  Nolen can dribble, but he can’t really shoot.  When Nolen is forced to take a seat, it’s hard be confident in his replacements.  Once Joseph is coming off the bench instead of a combination of Austin Hollins, Chip Armelin and Mav Ahanmisi, watch out.

And can Trevor Mbakwe be given enough credit for his performance this season?  I’m not sure he can.  Not in a long time have the Gophers had such an incredibly strong, ferocious athlete working under the basket.  It’ s the X-factor that transforms Minnesota from a mid-tier Big Ten team to one that is actually in the championship conversation.  Mbakwe’s ability to pull the ball down on the defensive side and carve out a lane for himself under the basket is a weapon the Gophers need if they want to hang with guys like Jared Sullinger and JaJuan Johnson when the conference season starts.

One of the only cons of the season so far has been free throw shooting.  As a whole, the percentages have been alarming, and the team is lucky it hasn’t lost any of its close games due to poor efforts at the line.  As we all know, though, Big Ten games can often come down to who connects on their free throws, and it’d be a shame to drop a game to Purdue or Michigan State due to going 60% from the line.  A nit-picky gripe, but one that needs obvious attention.

For now, Minnesota has passed the first challenge of the season, and looked really good doing it, which is a far cry from what they were doing at this point last year, losing to Portland, Texas A&M and Miami in consecutive games.  At the risk of looking ahead, it’s not likely the Gophers will face a significant challenge until the conference season opens up in Madison.  In fact, Minnesota could (and should) be 12-0 at that point.  After that, though, we’ll quicky know whether the team that beat UNC and WVU is also capable of taking down Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State or whether this was all just an early-season mirage.

The quick start should have Minnesota fans excited and rightfully so.  What we have is talent and maturity beyond what anyone expected from the team.  It’s looking like the physicality and quickness will allow them to hang with anyone they face both on offense and defense and if the performances by Nolen and Mbakwe so far are any indication, we might have the best Gopher team since 1997.

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