If a college basketball season is a roller coaster, the next four Golden Gophers basketball games will give the chance to coast. They won’t be climbing, against the odds, to upset top-tier teams, or hoping to avoid the steep descents of bad losses. Instead, as they approach the conference season, they have a chance to rest up, find a new scorer or two, and maybe play some solid defense for an entire game.
I’ll spare you a thorough preview of the New Orleans Privateers. They are very bad at basketball. Ken Pomeroy ranks them as the worst team in all of Division 1. The somewhat intriguing aspect of their horribleness is that they play faster than all but 9 teams. Essentially, they are a team of chuckers, and that has to be entertaining.
The next four games are more about the Gophers and their preparation for the Big Ten season than the teams they will be playing. The Florida State win salvaged a successful non-conference season, and should be enough to get the Gophers into the NCAA tournament if they have a decent Big Ten season. However, there is some work to do to assure at least a .500 record in conference play.
Minnesota’s greatest weakness has been their defense, and particularly their full-court press when it does not create a turnover. The Privateers, being one of the fastest playing teams in the country, should give the Gophers plenty of practice getting back on defense if they don’t get a steal right away. Interior defense has been problematic as well. I won’t pretend that the Gophers will automatically get better at defending two point attempts, where they rank 187th. However, there may be some value in playing bad teams if it means the Gophers can focus on the fundamentals of good defense. It is difficult to focus on the fundamentals while trying to keep track of legitimate Divsion I athletes.
A couple of blowout wins should also give the Gophers an opportunity to integrate a few players into the rotation that haven’t seen significant playing time. Mo Walker still needs more time to get into game shape, and he should be able to get more minutes in the next two weeks while allowing Elliot Eliason to have some well deserved rest. I also expect to see a heavy dose of Charles Buggs, who played a solid few minutes in the win against Florida State. Buggs is not in a position right now to steal playing time from anyone on the roster. However, with a bit of luck, he could be in a position to play several minutes per game, and hopefully eat up a few fouls that otherwise would have been called by on one of Minnesota’s more valuable interior players.
The Hollinses are clearly valuable. However, for the Gophers to take that next step, and be considered a viable NCAA tournament team, they’ll need to find a third scorer. Both Hollinses are a bit on the streaky side. When they are playing well enough, like they did against Florida State, the Gophers can be very good. When they are playing poorly, the second half of the Arkansas game happens. The key to finding out who that third scorer could be is to give those other players more shots. That may mean forcing the ball inside to see if Eliason or Joey King can score down low. It may mean more meaningful minutes, and hopefully better decisions, from Malik Smith. We could even see Dre Mathieu take more than one jump shot per game. There is no obvious third scoring option right now, but four games against bad teams could allow someone to show some signs of life.
The rest of the non-conference schedule is far from exciting. However these next four games could end up being very meaningful, which could lead to more excitement, and stress, in March.