It’s been a fun start to the season, eh? Seriously, raise your hand if you thought the Gophers would be 7-1 after eight games?
We’re three weeks into the season and excitement is palpable. Things change around here when the team takes down three legitimate opponents in a row. And, truthfully, beating Memphis, Stanford and Florida State (in a true road game nonetheless) is a significant accomplishment and a major step forward for this team.
It’s not like the Gophers haven’t started out previous seasons in similar fashion. But these wins were convincing showcases of what they are actually capable of. And you can’t overstate how much of a barometer the victory in Tallahassee was for the team. Not in recent memory have they gone on the road against a non-conference opponent of that caliber and brought home a convincing victory. They were up 21 at one point and held one of the more dangerous guards in the country, Michael Snaer, completely in check. This is a different team.
Now, we knew this would be a tough test for the team even before the season started. They faced a tough slate of competition in the Battle 4 Atlantis – a tournament where they could have just as easily gone 0-3 or even 1-2. In fact, we weren’t even sure how the four consecutive non-home games would even turn out. Imagine if the team had lost each game by two points. 4-4 looks pretty terrible at this point in the season. And no one knew how the beginning of the season was going to play out with Minnesota.
Questions were swirling in the offseason – How good would this team be? Did the NIT run mean they had finally figured things out? Had Rodney Williams finally turned the corner? Was Andre Hollins legit? How would Trevor Mbakwe rebound from a torn ACL? What would Austin Hollins do?
Given the amount of uncertainly going into the season, it was hard to really know what this team would do against better competition and a reason why it was so nerve-racking prior to the gauntlet of away games, and so exciting after. Before the games we knew almost nothing – sure we had seen a variety of good and great performances from most guys, but nothing against anyone better than Richmond. It was scary to head to the Bahamas since it was feasible that they would come back having proved nothing – a frustrating prospect. Instead, Minnesota proved quite emphatically that it belongs in the national conversation.
Now, it’s not like they’re Final Four bound, so I don’t want to run around singing their praises quite yet. But I do want to take a step back now that the gauntlet of tropical games is over and take a look at what we now know based on playing stiffer opponents. Because, truthfully, these games have taught us a lot about what the Gophers are capable of and what we should look for and expect between now and the end of the season. I could probably write for 5,000 words on this, but I’ll just cover the top story lines so far:
Andre Hollins is who we thought he is – Remember that crazy run at the end of last season? Well, the biggest question was if he had actually transformed as a player we could count on consistently or if he still had some growing up to do. After a slightly slow start it’s looking very much like the former. Obviously, he carried the team on his back in the Memphis game, scoring 41 points and almost single-handedly winning the game, but he’s also doing a lot of things other than scoring. He’s being a real point guard, helping out his teammates and playing good defense. But his biggest attribute so far has been raising the energy level. He’s displaying the quality that we saw in Devoe Joseph – the slightly out-of-control approach where you know he’s totally in control. It’s what’s been missing from the Minnesota backcourt for a couple years and something that has helped tremendously. In fact, it’s changed the dynamic of Tubby’s half court offense, which no longer appears as stagnant as it used to be.
Rodney Williams is the team leader – Has anyone grown as much in the last year and half as Rodney Williams? No, they haven’t. In fact, Rodney has quietly turned himself into the offensive and emotional leader of the team in his senior season. We saw the transformation towards the end of last year when he upped his consistency almost overnight. And it’s safe to say that he’s carried it over to this season, which has provided a solid foundation for the offense and defense to build on. He’s scored at least 12 points in each game so far, has improved his jump shot and is still a beast on defense. But the biggest indicator of his maturity? The guy rarely makes a bad decision now. He’s become the Gophers’ most dangerous weapon, and is a testament to Tubby being able to coach guys up.
Austin Hollins is this team’s X factor – Trevor Mbakwe’s health aside, this team will go as far as Austin Hollins takes them. I’m going to go out on a limb here, but assuming that Andre and Rodney continue to do what they did at the end of last year and into this year (which is remain offensive and defensive constants) Austin is the guy who makes these guys an upper-level Big Ten team. He doesn’t need to score 20 points per game – Rodney, Austin and Mbakwe will take care of most of the scoring. No, he needs to be the 8-10 ppg game guy who dominates on defense and can hit a shot when teams forget about him. He completely took Michael Snaer from FSU out of the game this week, which helped secure the victory. So far he hasn’t been the flashy guy who gets the highlights, but he’s hit some big shots and has done the dirty work behind the scenes. Six steals and five assists against Memphis, for instance. That’s where he needs to make his mark.
They bend, but they don’t break – It was a recurring storyline that played out far too often last season: The Gophers would retain or secure a lead late in the game, only to go into panic mode, move away from what had gotten them into winning position, and subsequently blow the game. It happened so often, in fact, that it felt weird when it DIDN’T happen.
With last season’s meltdowns in mind, I’ll admit that breakdowns against Memphis and Stanford crossed my mind at least once. Unlike last year, however, Minnesota didn’t throw in the towel once the opponent showed some spine late in the game. Instead, they dug in their heels, battled back and relied on their strengths to take back control. This was evident in both victories where both Memphis and Stanford looked to be retaking the game’s momentum. So far this season we’ve seen the Gophers retain the elements that made them successful at the end of last season during their NIT run. A crucial element that needed to change from last year, however, was finishing games strong and taking home close victories. If the Battle 4 Atlantis was any indication, this team is in much better shape to execute down the stretch, not beat themselves, and grab those closely-contested wins. The FSU game was another feather in their cap. When the Seminoles went on a late run to try to make a game of it, the Gophers did not fold. And that was in front of a hostile crowd that is known for making things difficult on its opponents.
There are other sub-stories as well, like Andre Ingram playing efficient minutes, Elliott Eliason getting hustle points and Maverick Ahanmisi being a serviceable backup, but I won’t get into them. Instead, it’s important to recognize that being 7-1 at this point is a big deal. This team came into the season without an identity but with reason to believe they could be really good if things fell into place. There were a lot of “ifs” and “maybes” in the offseason, but so far they’ve shown nothing but the ability to execute. If you haven’t noticed already, this is a different team than we’ve seen in the past. It feels weird, but it might just be okay to get excited.
Oh, and we’ve had this so far this year: