Back on the mainland, back in basketball arena, back in The Barn, the Gopher basketball team is back home with a winnable game to open the home season on Tuesday night. Minnesota will still play a team from Kentucky, specifically Western Kentucky University, though the Hilltoppers have little in common with Louisville.
The Hilltoppers were one of the first mid-major teams to do major damage in the NCAA tournament, making the Final Four in 1971. A few years before that, they won back to back conference titles thanks to some guy named Clem Haskins. They made the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2008 and the second round in 2009, and haven’t made it out of the round of 64 since. The last few years haven’t been uneventful. Their coach was fired for failing to alert the referees that their opponent had six players on the court. Ray Harper, who probably can count past five, had the Hilltoppers back in the NCAA tournament by 2013, the year they also beat Florida International who was coached by some guy named Richard Pitino. Getting back in the NCAA tournament so quickly after losing a coach under such dubious circumstances is no small feat, but Western Kentucky is a long way removed from a dangerous NCAA tournament team.
Even though they probably aren’t very good (who really knows though, one week into the season), Western Kentucky, projected to finish fourth in Conference USA, should be the Gophers toughest challenge in The Barn until Ohio State opens the home Big Ten slate, though that has more to do with some weak scheduling. They won their first game of the season by seven at home against Austin Peay. Austin Peay is projected to finish sixth in the Ohio Valley. According to the transitive property, and Las Vegas where the Gophers are favored by 13 points, Minnesota should win rather comfortably.
Of course, games aren’t determined by Las Vegas and imaginary basketball properties, and the Hilltoppers have some senior talent in the backcourt that the Gophers will have to deal with. T.J. Price likes to shoot, and can get hot from the outside. He was 4-4 from behind the three-point line against Austin Peay on his way to 22 points along with four assists and four rebounds. Trency Jackson isn’t shy from the outside, or anywhere else, and scored 14 points on 12 field goal attempts. Up front, Western Kentucky is pretty small like most mid-majors. Ben Lawson is 7’1” but only 215 pounds. George Fant, the teams best rebounder, is 6’5” but 250 pounds. If the Gopher front line can get involved in the game, and stay in the game, it is hard to see how Western Kentucky could stop them.
The real drama Tuesday night shouldn’t be whether the Gophers win (they should or it will be a very long season) but how they win. Louisville forced the Gophers into disjointed and rushed possessions on the offensive end, and bad fouls and poor decisions on the defensive end of the court. Elite teams do that to even good opponents. Good teams bounce back after tough games. We know the Gophers aren’t elite. On Tuesday we should find out if they are at least good.