The last set of games in our schedule preview hopefully will not determine if the Golden Gophers make the NCAA tournament, but will likely go a long way in determining how far they go in the NCAA tournament. If they win all the games in the must-win and should-win categories, they won’t be on the bubble, but they also shouldn’t expect to be much better than a nine seed in the NCAA tournament. Every win the Gophers can pick up in games they should not win will likely translate to one seed better in the tournament. If they win two of these games, they could be a seven seed. If they win a majority of these games, a three seed could be reachable. If your ultimate hope is at least a Sweet 16 appearance, you’ll be hoping for wins in three of these games, which would probably translate to a six seed, which means the Gophers will need to knock off a three seed, and that is hardly impossible.
November 22 vs. Duke Blue Devils
If the Gophers truly want to make a splash on the national stage, beating Duke in a mid-season tournament is certainly the way to do it. Coach K approaches these games as seriously as he approaches NCAA tournament games, sometimes too seriously. The Blue Devils were exhausted after winning the Maui Invitational last season, and were embarrassed by Ohio State in their next game. The Blue Devils will be focused, and they’ll likely be ready to prove that their early exit from the NCAA tournament was a fluke. Minnesota’s ray of hope is that Andre Dawkins will be out for the season, and Mason Plumlee could be out, or at least still recovering from a fractured wrist. My apologies if you wanted to see 14 feet of white dudes elbowing each other in the chops for two hours.
November 27 at Florida State Seminoles
The Gophers always seem to play Florida State (or Virginia) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, mostly because both teams have come off bubble seasons, or worse. In a striking turn of events, this is something of a marquee game. Both teams could be ranked, both have nationally known players, and both should ease into the NCAA tournament. This game will be on the road for the Gophers, and there should certainly be no expectation that the Gophers will beat a ranked team on the road.
December 31 and February 6 vs. Michigan State Spartans
A few years ago, under what could be similar circumstances, I declared that Minnesota’s New Year’s Eve match-up was the biggest game in a decade. Then they got Neitzeled, went into a bit of a tailspin, and barely made the NCAA tournament. In that game, the Gophers were ranked 21st, the Spartans were ranked tenth, and if the Gophers had won, those rankings would have flipped. Now, four years later, the teams will be in the same position, with likely the same result. Despite getting agonizingly close year after year, Tubby Smith can’t manage to beat the Spartans at home. In East Lansing, the Gophers have a hard enough time maintaining their dignity, let alone winning a basketball game.
January 12 and February 26 vs Indiana Hoosiers
As much as it pains me to acknowledge the resurgence of the Hoosiers, they are the consensus preseason number one team, and will probably win the national championship if they even bother to play defense for 20 minutes per game. Minnesota’s rather mammoth upset at Assembly Hall last season will be fresh in their minds, and I would not be surprised if both games are a blow out. If the Gophers do manage to knock off the Hoosiers in The Barn in February, wouldn’t it be fantastic if the students don’t rush the floor, and instead chant “We expect to win.” No matter how many championships the Hoosier’s win, their karma will never recover from their unwarranted court-rushings during the dark years.
January 17 vs. Michigan Wolverines
Style matters, and Michigan’s strategy to shoot a ton of three-pointers gives them an advantage against Tubby Smith’s strategy to let teams bomb away from the outside. Now, after a surprisingly strong season and some new big time recruits, the Wolverines seem like the team to beat in the Big Ten that is not Indiana. Teams have been successful in taking away the three-point shot from Michigan, but thanks to the recruitment of Mitch McGary, forcing Michigan to go inside could be just as dangerous as letting them shoot three-pointers all day.
January 26 at Wisconsin Badgers
If this game was played anywhere other than the Kohl Center, the Gophers would probably win. The Bo Ryan fear factor and ethically dubious basketballs give the Badgers a home court advantage often too difficult to overcome. The Gophers generally play well at Wisconsin, where they have one win and four single digit losses since 2008, but even close losses are losses.
February 20 at Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes will be ranked around the top five in the pre-season polls, which is way too high, way too soon. They will need to replace Jarred Sullinger and William Buford, and replacing that much production takes time. Unfortunately, the Gophers do not have the luxury of playing the Buckeyes early in the season, and by the end of February Ohio State should be meeting their early season expectations.
March 9 at Purdue Boilermakers
I don’t think Purdue will be good at all this season. They were nothing special last season, but they blew the doors off The Barn. Minnesota hasn’t won in West Lafayette since 2005, and hasn’t lost by fewer than 12 points since then. The Boilermakers should be mired in something of a rebuilding year, but Minnesota should still strongly consider staying home, and saving everyone the time, money, and energy of witnessing another ugly loss.