As the Gophers closed the book on this year’s non-conference season with an exclamation-point thumping of the lowly Lafayette Leopards we find ourselves in a not-unfamiliar position of wondering just what lies ahead for the team against conference foes. Like past years the Gophers roll into the conference season sporting a shiny record and a couple of decent victories on their resume. Like other years they’ve handled their relatively inferior non-conference opponents with ease and provided reasons for believing that this, indeed, could be “the year.”
Unfortunately, as we know all too well, recent performances have fallen considerably short of expectations due to various injuries, transfers, misbehaviors and inadequate play leaving the Gophers holding bag at the end of each of the past three seasons and searching for answers.
Yet there remains a fairly substantial level of optimism this year, even though the team has been in this same position multiple times before. But why is it different this year? Why does it feel like this is actually the team to get it done? Shouldn’t we just be sitting back, arms folded and saying, “Yep, been here before. Wake me up when they actually succeed.”
This year is different because there are no questions. There are no mysterious X-factors. There are no “if this happens” or “if things go right” type of discussions. Trevor Mbakwe isn’t on crutches on the sidelines already. Devoe Joseph isn’t causing locker room strife. The pieces are in place for a realistic run at something great for Minnesota and it’s easy to sense. Sure, there were questions at the beginning of the season. Would Andre Hollins show the same growth we saw at the end of last season? Would Rodney Williams continue to be the leader we saw during the NIT run? Would Trevor Mbakwe sufficiently rebound from his knee injury?
Those were questions that plagued the Gophers in the offseason, but ones that we got emphatic “YES” responses during this non-conference season. That’s incredibly heartening and a deviation from recent seasons where things just seemed to go wrong at every turn. Instead, things went 98% right for Minnesota in the first two months of the season, which means we can look forward to the conference season with a well-deserved sense of optimism. Yes, it’s nerve-racking to be on the cusp of figuring out if this is all just a smokescreen, but Minnesota is also not heading into the Big Ten season with an injured Mbakwe, or having slipped by USC and Virginia Tech or dropped a head-scratching loss to a mid-major. The season has gone about as well as it could through the first 13 games, leaving us rightfully excited about what’s to come.
What have we seen so far? A couple things jump out:
- The Gophers are full of weapons and are firing on all cylinders – The Gophers have stars, sure, but they don’t rely on any one player to get the job done. Like last night against Lafayette, neither the Hollinses, Mbakwe or Williams scored in double figures, yet the team still won by 25 and racked up 75 points. And it’s been that way the whole season. Some guys have big games, but they don’t rely on Andre Hollins, for instance, to run the offense. If Rodney is off one night then someone like Austin Hollins will pick up the slack. No single player will be “on” every night, and that’s entirely okay with this squad.
- Trevor Mbakwe is healthy – Some might call him a “below the rim” guy after surgery on his ACL, but the truth is that Mbakwe is nearly back to being the player he was before his crippling injury. It was a huge question coming into the year – would Mbakwe be able to contribute at a high level early in the season? So far the answer is yes and it has gone a long way to keeping the Gophers competitive, givig them a huge boost heading into the conference season. In only 18 minutes per game he is averaging just under nine points and more than seven rebounds per game. BOO YA.
- Austin Hollins might be the best defender in the conference – When Hollins came to town we expected a guy who was going to help the team by becoming an excellent shooter. And while he’s certainly contributing to the team in a scoring capacity, Hollins has made his biggest impact by becoming the team’s best defender. So far he has averaged 2.3 steals per game and usually gets the task of guarding the opposing team’s best player – a task he responds to by shutting that player down. Michael Snaer on Florida State, for instance, is one of the more feared shooting guards in the country. He even proclaimed that he “couldn’t be stopped” prior to the game against the Gophers. What did he do with Austin Hollins harassing him the whole game? Scored a measly 12 points in 30 minutes on 3-9 shooting – his third lowest output of the season. Hollins is adept at getting into passing lanes, deflecting the ball and generally causing havoc on the defensive end. This leads to plenty of turnovers and points in transition for Minnesota.
These are just a few of the many things that have gone right so far this season for the Gophers. And while the real season is just beginning, my point is that we’re not sitting here wondering if they can get the job done or asking the “what if” questions, unlike past seasons. Instead, we’re sitting back and counting the many ways that this team can hurt opponents. We know what they’re capable of, have seen them against high-caliber teams and have a sense that this year is different from past, less-successful seasons that started out with the same flavor.
Time to get the conference season started.