After five Big Ten games, four of which were against ranked teams and two against teams ranked number five, the Golden Gophers finally have a much deserved break. With no game this weekend, there is no better time to take a closer look at the season so far, how the team has performed compared to our pre-season expectations, and how things might play out the rest of the way.
Before the season started, we divided the schedule into three categories. The must-win games were those that should be guaranteed wins. The should-wins are games that an NCAA tournament team should be able to win. The bonus wins are games that the Gophers would not be expected to win, for various reasons, longstanding curses included.
In those must-win games, the Gophers are undefeated and untested. There have been seven such games, the closest of which was a 15 point victory over Richmond. In the Tubby Smith era, the Gophers have not lost many if any of these games, but there have been some close calls. Minnesota’s ability to overwhelm weaker competition was an early sign that this time had improved significantly.
Minnesota is also undefeated, 5-0, in the should-win games, though a few of the potentially more difficult opponents have been less stellar. Tennessee State had the potential to have a Murray State type season, but only went 6-7 in the non-conference season. They are undefeated in the Ohio Valley conference, so that could turn into a good win. Memphis has three losses, all to ranked teams. Due to their terrible conference, they may not lose again until the NCAA tournament. The Gophers beat South Dakota State without Nate Wolters. The Jackrabbits pulled off a stunner in New Mexico, but lost to South Dakota and North Dakota State, and will need to win their conference tournament to get back to the NCAA tournament. USC is just as dreadful as last season, and because of this that game probably should have been considered a must-win. The game at Illinois was classified as a should-win because the same set of players, but missing an NBA lottery pick, shouldn’t improve significantly. It turns out they haven’t, though Minnesota’s road win felt like a bonus-win at the time.
Minnesota’s only three losses came in games they should not have been expected to win, though they do have two wins in these games. Florida State was expected to challenge Duke for the ACC title. Instead, they are challenging Central Florida for the fourth best team in Florida. Duke, on the other hand, spent most of the season ranked number one, and if they ever get healthy should challenge for another national title. Indiana or Michigan could very well play the Blue Devils in the national championship game. The Gophers’ lofty ranking when they played the Hoosiers and Wolverines made these losses feel worse than they were, but losing to top five teams under any circumstance is nothing to be ashamed of. The Michigan State win, the only bonus-win that feels like one, keeps getting better and better. The Spartans held off the Buckeyes, and have a 5-1 Big Ten record.
The Gophers are clearly ahead of schedule and well on their way to comfortably making the NCAA tournament. If they keep this up, we’ll be talking about seeding and game location instead of the bubble, and there is real opportunity to take some big steps to a good tournament seed in the coming weeks.
The Gophers have 13 Big Ten games left, and all but two appear winnable. Of the remaining games, four are must-wins: two games against Nebraska, and home games against Penn State and Illinois. If the Gophers win those four game they’ll be up two seven conference wins, one more than in each of the past two seasons. The Gophers have four should-wins left: both Iowa games, Northwestern on the road, and Wisconsin at home. If they can win just two of those games, along with the must-wins, they’ll have locked up an NCAA tournament appearance. If they win all four they’ll have 11 conference wins, and likely a top 5 tournament seed. There are four bonus-wins left, at Wisconsin, at Ohio State, at Purdue, and Indiana at home. None of these games will be easy, though Purdue has been pretty bad at times. If the Gophers can pull off any of these wins, they will stay in the Big Ten title chase. Remember that there was a three way tie for first place last season, and all three teams had five losses.
In this year’s ultra-loaded Big Ten, every game is winnable or loseable. The only losses have been against teams that have been ranked #1 or #2 this season. If the Gophers can continue to win the games they are supposed to win, they’ll have their best season in 15 years.