We’re on the cusp of starting the most important part of the season – a time in which the Gophers square off against conference foes night in and night out. With a stacked conference this year, games are sure to be a bloodbath and the Gophers will enjoy little to no reprieve when facing off against inter-B1G foes.
Given the untimely break for finals and the holidays we’re all a little basketball hungry, so we gathered two of our favorite Minnesota rubes – MV of DT and FrothyGopher – to provide a little insight into what their takes are this year and what they think about a team that everyone is fairly excited about. It’s not often you can gather such an impressive collection of knowledge, insight and inebriation in one room, which makes this discussion all the more valuable. Who better to provide some candid context to the season than two dudes who live the dramatic comedy of Gopher sports every day?
1. It seems obvious that this team is built differently than recent teams who have realized similar success early in the season. Yet there’s still a whole lot of “wake me up when the Gophers are actually winning Big Ten games” around the community. What do you think about this year’s squad?
FG: I’m going to need to be the cliche machine on this year’s round table since, you know, the Gophers haven’t exactly been on TV all that much. Thanks, BTN! Anyway, this team is deep and has some leadership that has been lacking in the past. Dre Hollins (henceforth known as Hollins the Greater) has shown an ability to take over games that we probably haven’t seen since Vincent Grier (man, that makes me want to weep) and Godney’s full-time move to the four has him playing the best of his career. This past Saturday’s game against Lafayette demonstrated how deep the scoring on this team is; though I’m not sure whether Latvia or JoeDan Coleman can be counted on that much once conference play has begun. I’m skeptical whether this team finishes the year in the top 15; but it’s almost certainly the best Gopher team in a decade.
MV: What feels different about this year’s team as opposed to previous iterations of Team Tubby is the absence of complete mental lapses where you simply scratch your head and starting opening Pandora’s box of rube negativity. Another difference is how thoroughly and comfortably this squad has dispatched the teams it should through the first 13 games, nevermind coming out on top in contests against Memphis and Stanford; Showing late game resiliency and awareness in pressure situations only to see Stanford crumble was a strange trip into the Twilight Zone.
Even in their sole loss to Duke, there’s a silver lining since it’s not too often a team will hit 8/10 three pointers against what is a very good defense — even if the opponent is a top 3 team in the country. The Gophers will be a tough out in Big Ten play, night in and night out. They’re deep, play very good D, have much better offensive flow, rebound well and have superior athleticism at every spot in the starting 5. About the only thing that can derail this squad are turnovers and a hot shooting night from the opponent, the former of which is the more concerning aspect.
In a nutshell, this is the best I’ve seen the Gophers in years. The Barn should be rocking this winter.
FTB: The last few years have been exciting but they’ve also ended in supremely disappointing letdowns. Now, whether or not that was due to poor play, transfers, injuries or other uncontrollable acts of God is up for debate, but they were disappointing nonetheless. This year is different in that there is palpable excitement about what this team is capable of. In years past there was excitement, but you also were a little skeptical about what the team could actually do. Instead, we have a veteran team with guys that Tubby brought in himself who have shown success not only this year, but also at the end of last year. We now know they can get the job done and expect them to be a step above where they’ve been in other years where they were so close to being an upper-echelon B1G team.
2. The Big Ten is absolutely stacked this year, with five teams in the top 15. What does this mean for the Gophers and their aspirations/expectations for the season?
FG: Remember what I said about this being the best Gopher team in a decade? Yeah, well, this is the best B1G in a decade as well. With some breaks, we have a shot to finish 3rd or 4th in the conference, which would be a huge accomplishment given the level of competition. I’ll know a lot more about this team after the NYE game against the Fighting Izzos. I feel like that’s a must win if we have aspirations of a top 3 finish.
MV: If you go by Sagarin’s Predictor Ratings (as I am wont to do), the Gophers are only dogs in 3 contests by greater than 1 point (at Indiana, at Wisconsin and at Ohio State) while the margin is within a point for an additional five games (at Illinois, Michigan, at MSU, home against IU and at Iowa). So, acid test here, that’s 8 out of 18 games which are either a probable loss or a tossup game, leaving ten games in which the Gophers should reasonably be expected to win given the current circumstances — starting with the New Year’s Eve battle against Michigan State at The Barn.
It comes down to the first seven games, ending with the game at the Kohl Center on January 26th. If the Gophers can go through that tough first stretch at 5-2 or better, we’ll know this team is a legitimate Big Ten title contender. I don’t expect them to knock off IU in Bloomington, though a win over the Hoosiers or the Wolverines would serve the same purpose. Same thing goes with the trips to Illinois and Madison: if Tubby’s crew is for real, they need to split these contests.
FTB: Like MV alluded to, the first five games of the conference season are a true gauntlet, where they face Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. How they finish in those five games will be a true indicator of just who we have in this years Gophers. Are they a team that can win games against Michigan State and Northwestern at home? Or this the same team that drops winnable games in Williams Arena and only feasts on the lower tier conference teams? If they are meeting our expectations this year then I expect them to finish in the top five of the conference, which would continue to make them a top 25 team in the nation. They are almost certainly overrated currently at #11, but they should be better than Wisconsin, Illinois and the rest. Again, fifth in the conference might not sound like much, but in this year’s Big Ten, finishing fourth or fifth is a significant accomplishment and one they should be expected to achieve.
3. What do you think have been the biggest keys to the success the team has seen so far? “Maverick Ahanmisi” is not an acceptable answer.
FG: Mav is the glue that holds this team together. Admit it or shut the blog down. No, for me it’s 100% scoring depth and defense. Outside of Dre, I’m not sure whether we have a pure scorer on the team, but we’ve got a bunch of dudes who have the ability to put 8-12 points up consistently. Up to this point, that’s worked out pretty well for us. We’ll see if that holds true with better competition through January. Can dudes like JoeDan and Ingram produce with limited minutes against athletic defenders? That’ll be the difference between a 3rd and 6th place finish.
MV: Limiting turnovers, keeping the flow of the offense and avoiding the classic “Tubbyball” syndrome that’s plagued this team in conference season’s past. The Gophers are simply a different team with a fully seasoned Dre Hollins at the point and, in a strange way, Trevor Mbakwe missing most of last year paid extreme dividends for this season by getting Godney used to playing the 4. About the only thing this team lacks on offense is a true sniper from 3-pt range, though Dre can completely take over when he needs to (see: Memphis).
FTB: I haven’t been quiet about my love of Austin Hollins and I continue to believe that he’ll be the most important player on this team going forward. Defense is going to keep the Gophers in position to win a lot of games this year and Hollins is a big part of their defensive prowess. However, they’ve been so successful this year because they’ve spread the scoring around. No single player is expected to shoulder the scoring load in a single night, which helps protect against cold-shooting nights that can plague teams with only a couple weapons.
But the biggest key is the fact that this team has played together. A lot. Sure, going to the NIT was stupid and all, but in hindsight it was a huge benefit for the team at the time in that it gave the young guys more chances to play together against legitimate competition in true road games. It’s not often teams get the luxury of hard road games that don’t count for a whole lot and we’re seeing that extra playing time paying huge dividends already this year.
4. Of course, it’s not going to be milk and honey all season. What do you think is likely to give this team problems the rest of the way?
FG: I think we’ll struggle against teams with a strong inside game. I love Spurts Mbakwe, but we have a lot of questions if he runs into foul trouble. Eliason’s play has been troubling and Mo, while a big, beautiful man, hasn’t been terribly consistent. One of those two will need to step it up significantly.
MV: Turnovers. Lack of three point shooting. No true “sixth man” off the bench.
FTB: They haven’t seen a whole lot of it yet this year (especially against good competition) but the Gophers have struggled against the zone. Again. If they come up against a team that can run the zone and take advantage of the turnovers caused by it then Minnesota could be in huge trouble. I get hives just thinking about facing Northwestern. I’m also slightly concerned about our frontcourt depth. Yes, the Gophers have probably the best starting duo in the conference, but Eliason and Walker have a lot of work to do to get up to an acceptable level currently, which leaves the bench looking a little thin once the starters need a breather.
5. Prediction time. Looking at the conference schedule, how do you think the rest of the season plays out?
FG: I think we finish 5th in the conference and look back at two games we should have won that burned our chance for glory. The B1G is just so strong this year that it’s tough for me to be more optimistic than that. Illinois and MSU are both teams we have a good chance to compete with for the 4th and 5th spots in the conference. I think we beat out Illinois, but not Izzo. I just don’t see us beating out Indiana, Michigan or Ohio State. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but I reckon we’ll have to be happy with a ticket to the Dance and a 6 seed while Iowa and Wisconsin vie for the NIT crown.
MV: Call me crazy but I can see this team winning 12-13 games in the B1G this year, provided they keep their focus and intensity. The first seven games are key, of course, as is avoiding the #drunj inducing brain farts against Iowa, Nebraska or Nerdwestern. KenPom and Sagarin love this team, with each guru ranking the Gophers in their top 11. That’s good enough for a Sweet 16 run, which is where I think the Gophers will go this year.
FTB: I came into this season taking solace in the fact that the Gophers were underrated and would sneak up on a lot of teams. However, they now find themselves in an unenviable position of possibly being overrated. Would you rather be overrated or underrated? Hard to say. One thing for sure, though: the Gophers won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year and they’ve had enough national exposure that teams will know exactly what they’re up against. They haven’t responded to this well in the past, but I think that’s exactly what it is – the past. This just looks and feels like a different team than we’ve had and we certainly haven’t had a weapon like Dre Hollins in recent years, which adds a nice dynamic. That said, I think the Gophers surprise some people and finish 4th in the conference. They aren’t as talented as teams like Indiana, Michigan or OSU, but they can certainly beat them on any given night. This is the year they show they are better than Michigan State and Wisconsin.