It’s that time of year again. The two weeks on the calendar where college basketball really gets going. Where Chaminade takes down Goliath, ESPN goes Coach K-crazy (or, commences its love fest, I should say) and novelty neutral-court matchups that experts won’t give a damn about four months from now flood TV sets. Holiday tournament time!
I actually do like holiday tournaments, if for no other reason that we often get to see good teams face off against each other that we ordinarily wouldn’t see in a non-conference setting. Unfortunately, these are essentially exhibition games for everyone other than mid-major squads looking for a signature win. Case-in-point, the Golden Gopher win over the mighty Tar Heels last year. Such a win should, in theory, have cemented a tournament bid for basically any major program over the .500 mark. Unfortunately, early season games tend to lose their importance as the season wears on. Here’s how the conversations usually go in March:
Analyst A: Well, Minnesota DID beat UNC earlier this year. So that should count for something, right?
Analyst B: Yeah, but that was way back in November before things were settled. UNC was a different team then.
Analyst A: So, you’re saying that the games early in the year shouldn’t really count for much?
Analyst B: Well, no. They count, but you have to take into account the context. Both teams have changed so much and it’s a long season.
You can substitute any team for Minnesota and UNC, but the point is that these games really don’t matter in the long-run, because you know that they’ll just be discounted at the end of the year in favor of things like “last 10 games.” But enough ranting…
The Gophers this year travel to Orlando, Fla. to play in the Old Spice Classic where the field is a bit, um, thin on upper-level talent (unless you consider Dayton an upper-level talent). Here’s the field (last year’s final RPI in parentheses):
- Minnesota (82)
- Wake Forest (260)
- Dayton (70)
- Fairfield (97)
- Texas Tech (165)
- Indiana State (84)
- DePaul (234)
- Arizona State (161)
As you can see, there isn’t a top-25 team in the field and Minnesota is arguably the best team invited to the tournament. That’s both good and bad. Good in the sense that the Gophers have a chance to make a deep run and rack up a few wins, but bad because none of the wins really do much for their resume and might even result in a trap loss that could blemish their record. Who wants to lose to DePaul, right?
It also sucks because the Gophers don’t really get a chance to extend themselves before conference play. North Carolina was a fun matchup last year because we got to measure ourselves against one of the nation’s premier teams. With Minnesota’s tendency the past couple years to play down to its opponent, it’s hard to get a good read on what they’re capable of if they head to double OT against Texas Tech.
As you can see in the OSC’s official bracket, the Gophers face off against DePaul and then face either Texas Tech or Indiana State. From there it’s anyone’s guess, but here are a few primers for the first couple of possible matchups for Minnesota.
DePaul Blue Demons (2-0, 0-0 Big East)
Oh, DePaul. How can we even take you seriously? The former home of Quentin Richardson, DePaul hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2004 and is fresh off a 7-24 season, including a 1-17 finish in the Big East. In fact, let’s just take a look at their last three seasons:
- 2010-11 – 7-24, 1-17 Big East
- 2009-10 – 8-23, 1-17 Big East
- 2008-09 – 9-24, 0-18 Big East
WOW. That is bad. The Blue Demons are currently “rebuilding” and brought in a new coach in Oliver Purnell last year. At first glance it looks like they have a ways to go. Last year DePaul finished last among Big East teams in all games in points allowed (76.7), field-goal percentage defense (50.1 percent) and rebounding margin (minus-7.7). However, they did force 15.4 turnovers per game, good for third in the league.
However, if there is anyone who can present a problem for the Gophers its Cleveland Melvin. Not only is his name cool, he was named the Big East rookie of the year last season where he averaged 14.3 ppg and 5.0 rpg. He’s already shown this year that he is their go-to guy, putting up 16.5 ppg in DePaul’s first two games while pulling down 7.0 rpg. Melvin isn’t abnormally huge at 6’8″, 215 lbs., but he is an advanced shooter, which means that one of the Gopher bigs will have to follow him around the perimeter if they hope to contain him.
The Blue Demons also bring back four starters, so they have some familiarity across their roster. However, the key to the Gopher victory will be quelling any sense of accomplishment early and getting the young DePaul players frustrated. Minnesota will certainly have a size and talent advantage, but overlooking any Big East team, even DePaul, though, would be a mistake.
Texas Tech Red Raiders (3-0, 0-0 Big 12)
Speaking of middling major-conference teams, let’s talk about Texas Tech. Coming off a 13-19 campaign, the Red Raiders lost four of their five starters and return only five total players from last year’s team. Needless to say, expectations are not high in Lubbock and Texas Tech is widely considered the worst of the ten teams remaining in the Big 12. The roster is a mess of JUCO transfers and freshman and, while the Raiders have a few newcomers to get excited about if you’re a Texas Tech fan, the fact is that their best-case scenario this year is to get to .500.
So far in 2011 Texas Tech is 3-0, but have weathered two nail-biters against Troy and North Texas. Their best player so far has been transfer Ty Nurse, who dropped 29 against Troy and is averaging 19.3 ppg. Can he do that against a big-time defense? I’m not sure we’ll find out because they probably won’t get past Indiana State.
Indiana State Sycamores (4-0, 0-0 MVC)
Something about facing Indiana State just doesn’t feel right. The Sycamores had a gritty run through the Missouri Valley conference tournament and defied all the odds by securing the automatic bid. They have heart and the Gophers just don’t do well against teams that have heart. This is from a team that was picked to finish last in the MVC and was basically left for dead before the season even started. Now they’re picked to finish third in the always-competitive MVC and could present yet another worrisome mid-major matchup for the Gophers, who had trouble putting away both Bucknell and Fairfield already this season. Indiana State keeps games close and spreads the scoring across their entire starting lineup, which could provide problems on a neutral court where Minnesota won’t have the advantage of being on a familiar court.
Of course, on paper the Gophers have superior talent, but that doesn’t mean much in early-season holiday tournaments, especially against seasoned teams (ISU returns four of their five starters from last year). The Sycamores haven’t tested themselves yet this season, but should they find themselves facing Minnesota in the second game of the Old Spice Classic a close, contested game is not out of the question.
Again, the Gophers appear to be, at least on paper, the most talented team in the OSC field. Of course, that means nothing at this point in the season and in college basketball in general. While the team is 4-0, Minnesota will have to play up to its potential throughout the weekend to walk away with the trophy. The homer in me would like to pick them to win it all, but the objective Minnesotan in me feels like they’ll slip up against Indiana State in the second round.