There are only two games left in the ideally stress-free but often boring portion of the non-conference season. We won’t ignore those hyphenated opponents, but today’s news dictates looking forward to next season. Today it was confirmed that the Golden Gophers will indeed face the elder Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals in a coast guard hangar in Puerto Rico. The game will be inside, away from the horrors of the wind, water, and sunshine that have plagued similar early season marquee match-ups. The father and son match-up up is another cog in a much more difficult schedule next season that will see the Gophers face some combination of Georgia, Gonzaga, St. John’s, and probably a decent mid-major or two. There will also be a decent game as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. As we’ve discussed ad infinitum, the goal of the non-conference season is to lay a path to the NCAA tournament. If the next season is any reflection of Richard Pitino’s expectations, the Gophers should be pretty good.
This season’s non-conference schedule wasn’t particularly inspiring, but it is achieving the goal of making the NCAA tournament a real possibility. The Gophers are safely in the tournament according to most projections. The Gophers are also in better shape than other Big Ten teams that didn’t find the right balance in their scheduling. Indiana will finish the non-conference season without a quality win, and will need to earn a trip to the tournament during the conference season. Both Illinois and Michigan have their last chances for a good win on Saturday. Purdue, Nebraska, and Penn State have decent records, but those teams don’t have any wins the selection committee will care about. If the Gophers finish the conference season with the same record as any of the teams noted above, they’ll likely be the first in the tournament, if any of them make it.
For this season’s non-conference scheduling to matter at all, the Gophers need to take care of business in their final two games, starting with the Mavericks from Nebraska-Omaha. The Mavericks are only in their third season as a Division I team, and had been predictably awful, until this season. They have a 8-3 record, and none of their losses, to Drake, Iowa, and UNLV, have been by double digits. Minnesota should win, but it won’t be the virtually guaranteed blow.
If the Gophers are going to win easily, they would be well-advised to control the pace of the game and take care of the basketball. The Mavericks love to run, averaging 74.9 possessions per game, ninth most in the country. Their offensive possessions are short, averaging only 15 seconds. More than a third of their field goal attempts come in transition. The good news for the Gophers is that they are a much improved ball-handling team since last season, and the Mavericks defense isn’t very good when they don’t force turnovers. They force the 57th most turnovers in the country, but their defense ranks 257th in the country.
After Friday night’s game, and likely Andre Hollins’ 1000th career point, there will be only one more non-conference game. Enjoy the semi-stress-free basketball while you can, because there won’t be much of it for a while.