On the road in the Big Ten, where there are limited opportunities to win, road teams must take advantage of opportunities within games to escape with a victory. Despite playing their best 30 minutes of basketball in West Lafayette in a decade, in the end, the Gophers let a rare road victory slip away.
The Golden Gophers open Big Ten play in an enviable position. While other teams are already out of NCAA tournament consideration, or need to dramatically improve before the post-season, Minnesota simply has to win the games they are supposed to win. Unfortunately, winning games they are supposed to win, means winning at Purdue for the first time 2005. They had their best chance in a long time last season, in another game they were supposed to win, but couldn’t get the job done in three overtimes.
The non-conference season is mercifully over, and Big Ten play is just around the corner. Every Big Ten team has 18 games to prove they belong in the NCAA tournament, and for a significant portion of the Big Ten, a chance to prove that strange losses against some bad teams were flukes. Fortunately for the Gophers, and unfortunately for some other teams, it turns out that what you see during the non-conference season is generally what you get during Big Ten play.
“Every so often you run into a buzzsaw, not getting chopped down is a good thing.” That buzzsaw was Furman, and while the Golden Gophers nearly lost a limb or two, they won a close game that either foreshadows another poor defensive performance, or prepares the Gophers to overcome the adversity they will face later this season. UNC Wilmington, while not a particularly good team, is more than capable of making Saturday afternoon more interesting than it should be.
Just a few weeks ago, the Golden Gophers lost to St. John’s, after dominating the first three quarters of the game. The season looked over at that point. The Red Storm looked awful, and the Gophers looked worse. Flash forward to the present, and it is a whole new world. Ken Pomeroy’s computers are spitting out an 11-7 Big Ten record, which would be a tie for third in the Big Ten, and have the Gophers ranked 23rd in the country. The decidedly more human folks at CBS Sports have the Gophers ranked 24th. St. John’s, which looked awful, actually has one of the best defenses in the country, and is ranked 26th by KenPom, 13th by CBS Sports, 20th by the AP, and 23rd by the coaches. Georgia, which seemed just as bad as the Gophers, if not worse, has an RPI in the top 50, and in terms of RPI, Minnesota’s win over the Bulldogs is the Big Ten’s 8th best win this season. Combined with no horrible losses, which are mounting around the Big Ten, and the non-conference season is going well. However, I’m not convinced that the people who declared the Gophers to be terrible after the St. John’s game are wrong. The Gophers are just getting better…
Over the last several seasons, it wasn’t truly basketball season until the Golden Gophers unexpectedly lost a player to injury, transfer, or worse. This season, the unexpected departure was matched with two mid-season additions, as Gaston Diedhiou was finally admitted to the University of Minnesota, and Mike Lukashewich joined the team as a walk-on guard. Both might be nothing more than warm bodies at this point. However, those warm bodies give the Gophers some emergency depth in case of injury, and extra players in practice. The addition of Diedhiou is especially important, giving the Gophers a back-up forward who at least looks like he should be playing in the paint.
There is an old adage in basketball that when two teams play the same way, the more talented team always wins. North Dakota tried to run with the Gophers on Monday night, and they couldn’t keep up. The Gophers forced turnovers on 34% of the unnamed team’s possessions, shot 64% on two pointers, 50% of three pointers, had only 12 turnovers themselves, and won 92-56. It was as close to a complete performance as we’ve seen so far this season, which is encouraging since the team didn’t seem distracted by the news of Josh Martin’s departure.
The Golden Gophers gauntlet of guarantee games continues on Monday night, when a nameless team from Grand Forks comes to town.The “guarantee” of the guarantee games does not refer to the outcome of the game, but to the amount of money earned by the team that is supposed to lose. Every once in awhile, the team that is supposed to lose doesn’t get it right, and wins. Saturday was a rough day for the Big Ten, as Michigan State and Purdue lost to the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Northern Florida respectively. Many have complained that the Gophers non-conference schedule is boring. If it is boring, that means things are going well.
The competitive portion of the non-conference Golden Gopher basketball season is over. The Gophers have four weeks and six games to prepare themselves for the Big Ten season. Thanks to wins over Georgia and Wake Forest, the Gophers should still have a reasonable chance to make the NCAA tournament with a 9-9 or 10-8 conference record, if they can improve enough to do so.
The next six games aren’t about the Gophers opponents at all. If any of the opponents are competitive, and if a game is ever in doubt, something has been horrible. Western Carolina, Friday’s opponent, is the best of a group of bad teams, and they already have losses to Charleston Southern and East Tennessee State, this season. The next six games are all about the Gophers solidifying their strengths, fixing or at least hiding their weaknesses, and solidifying line-ups.
Anyone who followed the end of the Tubby Smith era and the mercifully short coaching search, no matter which candidate they were backing or their feelings about Tubby, could agree on one thing. At least we aren’t Wake Forest.