Once again, we will be forgoing our typical preview until statistics catch up to the sliding Golden Gophers, or until the Gophers can prove they are capable of playing up to their gaudy statistical profile. Instead, we’ll take a trip down memory lane and take a look at an equally confounding basketball team that was the eventually quite successful 1993-94 Golden Gophers.
Long ago, a whole five years before the internet entered the mainstream, and several years before twitterers were tweeting, there was an immensely talented basketball team featuring a sure-fire NBA player that could not quite play up to their full ability. This team was lucky that there was no internet, twitter, or comment sections on blogs. They would have been scrutinized and criticized ad infinitum.
Like the current crop of Golden Gophers, they didn’t win their pre-season tournament, but they showed they were capable of playing with the best in the country. They racked up wins against good but not great non-conference competition. They won an early home game against one of the best Big Ten teams. Then they lost a road game to a very poor Penn State team. They won a couple of home games, then lost three straight to conference competition, including to Iowa, the eventual last place team in the Big Ten. They rebounded to win four games in a row against four of the worst five teams in the Big Ten. If the internet was around, I am sure the twitterati would have called off the season at that point and anointed the team national champions. They lost the next two to good teams, bouncing back to beat Indiana by 50 in one of the more infamous drubbings in Hoosier History. Problem solved, national championship back on track it seemed until they were blown out by Glenn Robinson and Purdue. Worries should have really set in when it took three overtimes to beat the worst team in the Big Ten at home. Ending the season with a 15 point loss should have been enough to shut down the basketball program for good. An NCAA tournament invitation should have been refused. Why bother?
College basketball seasons are long, and a lot can happen. While unpleasant to watch, four game losing streaks happen, especially in the best conference in the country. Winning streaks can happen too when the opponents line up right. Minnesota’s 3-4 record isn’t where many people hoped the team would be a little more than a third of the way through the conference season, but I suspect the consecutive losses and not the number of losses are the real problem. Would fans feel more optimistic if the Gophers lost to Michigan State but beat Northwestern on the road, or beat Wisconsin but lost to a now self-evidently bad Illinois team? The record would be 3-4, there would still be a good win and a bad loss. Why does the order matter?
The days of the round-robin Big Ten schedule ended with Penn State and faded further into history with the Big Ten tournament, so the schedule does not even out as much as it once would, but tough sections of the schedule are still balanced by easier stretches, and the Gophers find themselves at the beginning of one of the easier sections. Four of the next five games are at home, and three of the next four should be double-digit victories. If the Gophers win four of their next five games, they are not a different team than when they won three in a row to start the Big Ten season or during the current four game skid. Instead they are a good but not great team playing the hand they were dealt. The loss to Northwestern was discouraging, the only bad loss of the season. The other three conference losses were expected.
During the 1993-94 season, Minnesota consistently struggled against some of the worst teams in the Big Ten, and finished with the conference season with a 10-8 record despite having enough talent to finish with a much better record. The Big Ten was loaded that season, though, and that 10-8 record was good enough for a five seed and a season-ending #23 ranking. For the sake of fickle fans, there were never more than two losses in a row, which is easier to do when never facing more than two ranked teams in a row, especially with a random non-conference game in the middle of the Big Ten season. Opponents matter more than the order in which they are played. There might be a time this season when panic is justified, maybe a week or two from now, but not right now.