Once upon a time, before schedules became riddled with directional-state universities and before San Diego State was simultaneously in the Big East and the Big West, appearing in the NCAA tournament was a true feat. Only conference champions made the tournament, and second place teams, even if they were the second best team in the country, were left out of the tournament. Now making the tournament is an after thought for the very best teams, a box to check on the way to better things for a lot of teams, and unfortunately, still an accomplishment for teams that tend to dabble in mediocrity. The Golden Gophers have been that quintessential mediocre team, barely good enough to make the tournament, but usually not bad enough to not have a chance to go dancing. This season, the Gophers have the talent to check the NCAA tournament box sometime in February, and start to focus on winning their first NCAA tournament game (that counts) since 1994.
If you are just checking in, we’ve been breaking down the schedule into three categories the must-wins, the should-wins, and the bonus wins. The must-wins are those games that the Gophers have no business losing if they plan on even remotely approaching an NCAA tournament bid. Those games alone would give them 11 overall wins and six conference wins. The should-wins will likely determine the success of this season. The Gophers do not need to win all of these to make the watered down NCAA tournament. If they win them all, we could be looking at a special season. If they struggle in this set of games, they’ll need to pull off some real stunners, or Tubby Smith’s seat will be hot.
November 15 vs. Tennessee State Tigers
The Battle 4 Atlantis will grab all the non-conference schedule headlines, but this under the radar match-up will likely also be a battle, and the most competitive home non-conference game. Tennessee State was the only team to knock off Murray State during the regular season a year ago, and have the very real opportunity to be better, much better even, this season because they bring everyone back. Robert Covington has Kevin Love’s statistical profile with elite rebounding ability and way above average three-point shooting ability. If you are looking for an early barometer on which to judge the season, this is the game for you. If the Gophers win, or even win easily, things are looking up.
November 23 vs. Memphis or VCU
This game falls under the should win category almost by default. If the Gophers beat Duke in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis, they play the winner of Memphis or VCU, if the Gophers lose to Duke, they play the loser. Memphis will likely appear in a few pre-season top 25 polls, and would be beatable if Duke is beatable. If the Gophers lose to Duke and VCU loses to Memphis, the Gophers should still have a pretty good chance against a team that could not beat a marginal top 25 team on a neutral floor.
December 4 vs. South Dakota State Jackrabbits
If you like pre-season hype, NCAA tournament sleepers, and the local angle, this is the game for you. Nate Wolters will mercifully make his final appearance in The Barn. The senior guard exploded on to the national scene last season leading the Jackrabbits in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, and ultimately to the NCAA tournament. They’ll be the favorite to win the Summit League, and are a real threat to knock off anyone with Wolters’ ability to take over a game.
December 8 at USC Trojans
The Trojans will be better than they were last season. They almost have to be after winning one measly Pac-12 game last season. They’ll be without Maurice Jones, their tiny but effective leading scorer, who has been suspended for the season. On a neutral court, the Gophers would beat the Trojans. In a neutral time zone the Gophers would beat the Trojans. On the west coast, at 9:30 PM central time, things start to get dicey. Given the talent disparity between these teams, this will be extremely aggravating to watch, something comparable to the Gophers narrow escape from Fort Collins a few years ago. Like that game, the USC game likely won’t be on TV, unless you have the Pac-12 Network, so go ahead a watch Manny Pacquiao fight Marques for the 18th time.
January 9 at Illinois Fighting Illini
The Gophers nearly beat Illinois twice in the season opening Big Ten game last season, and failed to put the game away, only to lose in double over time. The Gophers should be better this year, and the Illini, at least at this stage of the season, should be worse. But the Gophers do not win at Illinois, or least not often during my lifetime. This is another one of those games where the Gophers would win under normal circumstance, but nothing is normal playing in that spaceship also known as the other Assembly Hall.
January 23 at Northwestern Wildcats
Welsh-Ryan Arena is a dreadful excuse for a high school gym, which is somehow home to a Big Ten team, and for the Gophers it has continued to be a difficult place to play. In the Gophers’ favor is the graduation of John Shurna and the suspension of JerShon Cobb. In Northwestern’s favor is Luka Mirkovic’s extradition for crimes against basketball. The Wildcats still have the ability to be a middle of the pack Big Ten team, with Dave Sobolewski and Drew Crawford as a skilled back court duo. The real question, as it is with every Bill Carmody team, is if Northwestern’s defense will show up as often as Carmody’s tie.
February 3 and February 17 at Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes have become the trendy sleeper team in the Big Ten, presumably because no one is sleeping on the Gophers. The Hawkeyes do indeed have the ability to be a very good team, and I would not at all be surprised to find them on the NCAA tournament bubble in March. Minnesota’s two losses to Iowa last season were two of the most head scratching losses of the Tubby Smith era. If Maverick Ahanmisi makes a lay-up, the Gophers probably win the game at The Barn. If the Gophers score at all in the final few minutes in Iowa City, they win. If the Gophers win both games,they make the NCAA tournament, and are mentioned as a favorite to win the Big Ten. It is amazing how a few minutes can change everything. While Iowa brings a lot back, they do not bring back Matt Gatens, who was the heart and soul of the team. They’ll need to find someone to replace not only his scoring, but also his leadership.
February 14 vs. Wisconsin Badgers
Welcome to Big Ten scheduling Irony day, when you and your sweetheart can yell death threats at the most hated man in all of college basketball. This should be a fun one. Bo Ryan could probably squeeze an NCAA tournament appearance out of a pile of rocks, and will likely lead his team to another NCAA tournament this season. However, this does not figure to be one of those seasons that they challenge for a conference title. Jordan Taylor is gone, and he was one of the best players in the country. The Badger optimists have been talking up George Marshall as the second coming of Oscar Robertson for more than a year, but the red shirt freshman hasn’t played a second of Division I basketball. He might be good, but he won’t be as good as Jordan Taylor, and even Taylor only won one out of his three games in Williams Arena.
If the Gophers do manage to win these “should-win” games, they have already locked up an NCAA tournament appearance. They’ll be right at the 20 win mark, with nine of those coming in the Big Ten, with another nine games to really make a name for themselves. For every one of these game that they do lose, they’ll need to make up for it by winning games that at least on paper appear very difficult. We’ll take a look at those games later.