The Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Indiana Hoosiers, who play each other in a rather important game for NCAA tournament purposes on Saturday evening, find themselves in nearly the same position. Both teams are on the bubble, trying to take charge of their own destiny, lest they be forced to hope that other teams play themselves out of the NCAA tournament. However, while Gopher fans (and players unfortunately) have begun to panic about their NCAA tournament prospects, Indiana fans think that is so six weeks ago, and are now becoming more confident as the season progresses. Expectations are to blame.
When Richard Pitino was hired as coach, and after the Gophers’ starting front line left to pursue professional basketball careers, no one expected much out of this season’s team. In fact, most people thought they would be awful. Once Pitino brought in a few spring recruits, and they proved to have a basic level of basketball competency, all but the most optimistic of Minnesota sports fans, and there are only six or seven total optimistic Minnesota sports fans, thought it would be incredible if the Gophers somehow snuck into the NCAA tournament.
There was good reason for low expectations. Richard Pitino had never coached against a Big Ten team. The starting point guard had never played in a major conference. The two potential options at starting power forward weren’t power forwards. One center had never played more than 15 minutes per game, and the other center had just lost 15% of his body weight. Sure, there was some talent left over in the form of the Hollinses, but a combo guard and an undersized, defense first small forward and a first year coach are not likely suspects to lead a team to an NCAA tournament appearance, let alone a winning record in the Big Ten.
A lot can transpire over the course of a college basketball season. Surely, some teams get a little bit better over the course of a 31 game season, especially as players improve. Some teams get a little bit worse too, often because of injuries and other departures. However, the quality of a team at the end of a season does not depart significantly from the quality of a team at the end of the season. A team that is legitimately good at the beginning of the season, the vast majority of the time, will win a lot more games than it loses. A team that is bad at the beginning of the season, even if it incrementally improves as the season goes on, is going to lose more games than it wins. Generally, if a team’s performance significantly diverges from pre-season expectations, the team didn’t get much better or much worse. Rather, the expectations were wrong.
Team performance does wax and wane throughout the season. Basketball, and life, would be pretty boring if the expected always happened. Tubby Smith’s first season with the Gophers was considered pretty successful, turning a nine win team into a 20 win team. The final record was a surprise, but hardly any of the games were. They Gophers beat, and lost to every team they were supposed to. Richard Pitino’s first team is trending towards surprises, whether it is beating the Badgers without Andre Hollins, or losing to Northwestern at home. You never know what you are going to get on a game by game basis. Over 31 games though, we’ll know just how good or bad the Gophers are.
The pre-season expectations for the Gophers, on the high end, were a bubble team that just sneaks into the NCAA tournament. That usually equates to eight or nine conference wins. If they slid just off the bubble and into the NIT, they would have seven or eight conference wins. Right now the Gophers are 4-6 in the Big Ten, with four or so realistically winnable games. The Gophers are who we thought they were, heading in the direction we thought they would, even if they’ve taken a couple positive or negative detours towards their destination.
Indiana has been playing the expectations game, along with basketball this season. They were coming off a trip to the Sweet 16, and they had the best incoming recruiting class in the Big Ten. Expectations were off the charts, with visions of banners and cutting down nets dancing in Hoosier heads. Except, of course, those expectations were wildly optimistic. They ignored that two of the top four NBA draft picks would be leaving, along with the team’s best outside shooter and a power forward who made nearly 50% of his three-pointers. That is just too much talent to replace, even with a great recruiting class. There was enough talent to make the NCAA tournament, but probably not win many games once they got there. Indiana struggled during the non-conference season, and those sky-high expectations quickly came crashing back to earth, and maybe underground, as the grumbling among the Hoosier faithful grew louder. Lately, Indiana is playing better, and they once again look like a team that could make the NCAA tournament, but probably won’t last more than a game or two. The expectations that were once too high, and then too low, are now about right.
Saturday’s game at The Barn is something of a must win for both teams. There are only so many at-large spots left, and the Gophers and the Hoosiers both want one of them. A win for either team won’t only help their own NCAA tournament argument, but will hurt the loser’s tournament credentials too. If the Gophers win, they’ll be back on track to be a true bubble team, and right in line with expectations. If Indiana wins, they’ll take one step closer to making the NCAA tournament too, also in line with expectations. The one thing that seems certain, is that expectations for either team won’t stay static, even when the overall quality of each team stays the same.