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The Gophers are on a week-long break from action, which gives us ample time to reflect on what has gone wrong, what has gone right and what has just been plain strange. Because, face it, the Big Ten sometimes just doesn’t make sense. Two straight road conference wins has Gopher Nation with a renewed interest in the team and optimism continues to grow with several days to reflect on what we’ve seen in the last two games.

We invited some blogger friends to join in on a roundtable regarding the team so far and get some fresh insight from rubes who wear their Gopher hearts on their sleeve and are not afraid to share their opinions – good or bad. Matt from Fringe Bowl Team, Nathan Wickman from Down With Goldy and seemingly-always-inebriated FrothyGopher from Still Got Hope all joined up with our own JF to hash out what we’ve seen this season and what we think will happen going forward. Because who better to discuss the dramatic comedy that is Gopher basketball than the guys who live it every day?

1. The Gophers went from 0-4 and staring at real dismal start to the conference season to suddenly having hope. Now that they’ve knocked off Indiana and Penn State (on the road, no less) where do you think this team is now as a whole opposed to a week ago?

FBT: My opinion of them really hasn’t changed all that much. Going into the first five games of the Big Ten schedule, I thought they would probably win one, maybe two of their first five contests; admittedly, I did think that one victory would come against Iowa rather than the Hoosiers on the road. If anything, I’m more impressed with how they came out and smacked Penn State around in what could easily have been a let down game, especially at an arena and against a team that’s really given the Gophers some trouble over the last few years (to be fair, Talor Battle was a huge factor there).

FrothyGopher and I still reserve the right to purchase the FireTubbySmith.com domain and go full heel.

DWG: I really don’t think there is much of a difference.  Since Mbakwe went down the team has been a really mixed bag that at times plays very, very well and at others is a completely pile of stinky indian food diaper garbage.  Against the crappy teams they played out of the conference they could combine a half or so of awful play with a half or so of good play and end up coming out on top.  They played very well for most of the Illinois and Michigan games, but it’s always tough on the road in the Big 10 so no big surprise they couldn’t pull it off.  Against Iowa they played almost an entire good half and then like crap the rest of the game and you can’t do that and win in the Big 10 unless you’re playing Nebraska.  A terrible game all around against Purdue is always going to be a loss.  A great game was played against Indiana but it really wasn’t far off from how they played against Michigan and Illinois, they just caught the Hoosiers on a bad shooting night.  Despite the recent successes, I think this is the same team it has been most of the year and will be the same team until the end.  Expect the rest of the year to be just as frustrating.

FG: Well, it’s hard to not be pretty pleased after the last two games. I mean, I spent a week chasing the dragon to prepare for a bloodbath against Indiana, so the theft of the win out there was a thing of beauty. We did what we were supposed to do against Penn State; but, after the shame of the first four games, just meeting expectations was good enough for me. Just to show MV that he isn’t the only one with an 11th-grade education, I’d say this team has reached homeostasis: we should consistently beat the bottom three, lose to the top three and be competitive in the middle. Year over year, that’s probably where we belong in the B1G. Doesn’t mean there won’t be hiccups to the good (Indiana) and bad (Iowa, thought they’re quickly proving themselves a different team than past years), but in general, I think we’re right where most pragmatic fans thought we would be.

FTB: Confidence is everything for a young team, and with only one senior and one junior who have been through a Big Ten season, this team is exceedingly young. They picked up the best road win in program history at Indiana (highest ranked road team the Gophers have ever beaten). They now know they can and how to win. I can’t imagine the team expected to win when the Big Ten losing streak was approaching the one year mark. Now their expectations have changed, and it is much easier to win when you expect to win.

2. Do you think that tournament aspirations are warranted at this point or should we try not to get ahead of ourselves.

FBT: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. They’ll probably need at least 8 B1G wins, plus a victory or two in the Big Ten Tournament to get on the NCAA bubble. Right now, Palm has them in as a 10 seed while Lunardi has them “First Four Out,” a product of having a solid RPI (48th) and SOS (41st). Trouble is, Sagarin Predictor ratings put the Gophers at 7 Big Ten wins including a victory at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where the Squawks played Purdue tough and knocked off #13 Michigan. Tubby will likely have to guide his team to another upset and earn all of the “expected” wins in order to qualify for the tournament. It’s still a very long road ahead, something I don’t know if this young team can accomplish as the season drags on.

DWG: I think hoping they figure out a way to make the tournament is fine for fans, but if you start expected they’re suddenly going to rattle off a bunch of wins you’re going to be in for some serious disappointment.  I wrote this on my blog, but with that lackluster OOC slate they played they’re going to need AT LEAST 9 conference wins, which means they need to go 7-5 the rest of the way.  The only problem is that I only see 3-4 games where they’ll be favored and only one absolute gimme (Nebraska at home).  They need to win every game they are expected to, starting with Northwestern this weekend, and grab a couple more shockers.

FG: Depends on which tournament, I guess. Provided we’re talking about the NCAAs and not the Chef Boyardee Invitational, I save my delusions of grandeur for Gopher football season, so I’ve got none left come hoop time. Truthfully, it’s hard for me to get beyond seven wins in the conference. Is that enough for us to get in? Anything is possible, I guess, but it’ll be tough without a signature win. And before y’all point to Indiana, let’s see how they respond to getting pantsed by OSU this past weekend before we crown their ass.

FTB: I’ll let you know in six games. The Gophers have the ability to go 5-1 before they meet Wisconsin at The Barn, and they will likely be favored in five of those games (on the road at East Lansing being the clear exception.) The problem in the Big Ten, of course, is that the teams who are supposed to win haven’t been. The Gophers need to consistently win the games they are supposed to win before the bubble becomes relevant.

3. What do you think have been the biggest keys to the recent success the team has seen?

FBT: Playing Coleman and Welch more and Chip and Mav less, for one. The second was ditching the awful reliance on outside shooting for the flex offense. Third, and most importantly, is better effort from the team as a whole.

DWG: Taking the ball at the rim and being more aggressive on both ends of the court.  I have no idea what happened against Iowa and Purdue, but when a terrible jump shooting team starts settling for jump shots you have some real issues.  I think Joe Coleman has really helped out because he’s fearless and looks to drive every time he gets the ball and that seems to be catching on with the rest of the team a little bit.  So Joe is fearless, looks to create contact and get inside, and is looking like a team leader already.  We’re sure he’s related to Dan?

FG: Joe-Dan Coleman has been money. Kid’s going to be a star. It’s been nice to see the young guys step up over the last few weeks. Eliason and has beautiful feathered hair has quietly filled in admirably when Rip Van Sampson has gotten in foul trouble or otherwise sucked the hind teat. I also think Rodney’s transition to the four after Mbakwe’s injury has been key. He seems much more assertive than last year. It
could be a maturity thing or just finally learning to play the game beyond jumping high; regardless, he’s a beautiful man.

FTB: The emergence of Joe Coleman gives the Gophers a legitimate driving threat whose mere presence gives his teammates more room to operate. At some point, other teams will adjust to what he brings to the court, but until then the Gophers have a new weapon.

On defense, Tubby Smith seems to have realized that one of the top shot blocking teams in the country does not need to double team every time the ball goes inside. Less unnecessary double teams means better perimeter defense, and a less dysfunctional relationship with the three-point shot.

4. We’ve seen some inspired play this season as well as some downright awful games. As a longtime Gopher fan, what have been the most frustrating parts of this season?

FBT: What’s frustrating to me is to think of where this team would be had all of Tubby’s recruits not fled Williams Arena like roaches from a burning building. What would our record be if Devoe and Cobbs were running the point instead of Welch and Ahanmisi, if Royce where playing the 3/4 instead of Ingram and Osenieks or Colton providing toughness and rebounds down low instead of Eliason? Who wouldn’t prefer a lineup of Devoe, Coleman, White, Rodney and Sampson with Cobbs, Dre and Austin Hollins and Colton coming off the bench? I know it’s not exactly fair to say whom OTS would have signed had everyone stayed but the point stands: Tubby had his window of opportunity for a great team with the last two seasons, a window that has since slammed shut.

I guess I just expect more out of a coach making $2M a year than hoping for a best case scenario of a double-digit NCAA bid in year 5 even if the team’s best player was lost for most of the year. He should either be able to recruit well enough as a two million dollar man where the squad’s fortunes aren’t tied so heavily to one player or be able to coach a consistent effort out of the players he does have on a nightly basis — both would be nice, but I don’t want to get too greedy here.

If we as Gopher fans are truly happy with 8-9 win Big Ten seasons and a puncher’s chance at the NCAA’s, I’d argue we don’t need a $2M man to do so. But I’m more of a football rube, so what do I know.

DWG: For me it’s been Tubby.  There have been too many times where the team is either sleep walking, not executing, or both and I know it’s the players job to play but when the entire squad is rendered clueless by Iowa’s zone how does that not fall on the coach’s shoulders?  If it was one player or even a couple who seemed baffled that’s one thing, but the entire team was stumped.  For a guy who is thought of as a coaching legend that just can’t happen, and even if it does for a possession or two his job is to fix it.  This year, for the first time, I’m starting to actually listen to those who accuse Tubby of treating this job as a pre-retirement retirement and question if the fire to succeed is still rather.  That, and the missed opportunities.  The win over Indiana is almost the most frustrating part of this season, simply because it was a truly great win that has a very good chance of ending up being meaningless in the grand scheme.  Think how different this season looks if they manage to close out either Michigan or Illinois and hold on against Iowa.  3-2 with two quality wins on the road.  Arg.  I’m going to see if I can slit my wrists with my Sword of Gryffindor letter opener I have on my desk.

FG: Ralph Sampson. I know it’s an unfair take, but I just can’t stand watching him out there. The team looks so much more dynamic when his listless ass isn’t slothing around. He’s had his positive moments,such as the first five minutes against Penn State, and is a plus defensive player; but, in my humble, drunken opinion, Eliason is already the better rebounder. Dude has all the talent in the world, but just lacks any aggression. Makes me angry just typing about it. I’d better end here before I stroke out.

FTB: I rarely get frustrated by the Gophers because I have a healthy perspective and realize this is a Gopher team, and things can and will go wrong. That being said, the clear lack of preparation for Iowa’s zone was strange, and the lack of creativity by both the players and coaches was disheartening.

5. Looking at the rest of the conference schedule, how do you think the rest of the season plays out?

FBT: I think they’ll get between 6 and 8 Big Ten wins and probably win a game in the BTT but finish just outside the NCAA bubble. Tubby will reach the 20 win threshold for the season and re-start a meaningless streak. Maturi will announce an extension for Tubby as his parting “gift” to the athletic department. Frothy and I will drink our feelings.

DWG: Probably NIT.  Everything hinges on Sunday’s game against Northwestern and the stretch from Jan 28-Feb 9 where they play home against Illinois, away at Iowa and Nebraska, and then home against Wisconsin.  They could conceivably go 5-0 in those games and if you add in what should be (if it wasn’t the Gophers at least) a gimme home game against Nebraska and suddenly that’s 8 wins in conference and they’re in the NCAA conversation.  More likely they go 3-2 or worse and it would take a couple monumental upsets to put them anywhere in the picture and a likely NIT bid.  So if it’s always been your dream to see somebody like Oregon State or Rutgers come play at the Barn, this could be your year.  Of course, it could always end up with a match-up like Minnesota vs. Iowa State which would be pretty awesome.

FG: I’m predicting a sweep of Nebraska, splits with Bucky and Northwestern, a win over Iowa and a win against Indiana or Illinois at home. So, seven wins, optimistically. I hope I’m wrong and we can eek another win or two out of there (preferably against a struggling MSU squad next week), but I think less than seven wins is more realistic than more. The disappointment of Gopher fandom is why I drink so much, after all.

FTB: They’ll most likely get to 8-10 in the conference. They can beat Wisconsin and Indiana at home, but they odds of beating both are pretty slim. The 8-10 record could get them into the tournament if they can manage to win one in the Big Ten tournament.

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