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.
Once upon a time the only drama surrounding the first game of the Golden Gophers basketball season was whether their opponent could keep the game interesting until half time. It wasn’t that the Gophers were good, it was that their opponents were pretty bad. Ken Pomeroy has been ranking teams using his advanced statistical methods since the start of the 2001-2002 season, and only twice has Minnesota opened its season against a top 100 team. Even then, Wofford and Bucknell, ranked 80th and 79th, didn’t put up much of a fight. Friday’s season opener is a whole new world, when the Gophers take on Louisville, Ken Pomeroy’s third ranked team.
Hiring Richard Pitino was a short cut, and the Gopher basketball team is gaining national notoriety, even if they haven’t earned it yet.
College basketball is all about events these days. It isn’t nearly enough to play a marquee opponent in the non-conference season. That games must be played in a location unaccustomed to basketball. These made for TV events feature some of the best teams and biggest names in the sport, in some very strange places. Perennial Big Ten power Michigan played on an aircraft carrier, and later on an airbase in Germany, where they played Connecticut, who was only two seasons removed from a national title. The Champions Classic, featuring teams with multiple championships, the Dukes and Kentuckies of the world, rotates between NBA arenas and NFL stadiums, in search of TV ratings.
On Friday in a hangar in Puerto Rico, the Gophers will appear in the spotlight. They didn’t earn it of course, unless you think they did by hiring Richard Pitino. The Armed Forces Classic won’t be about the Gophers, or Louisville, or the troops who get to take a brief break from defending the Caribbean (really, Putin, really?). The Gophers didn’t earn the novelty basketball game, the military themed uniform, or the televised press conference. It is all about the Pitinos, and this is fine. This is a good thing.
There is a non-hockey game between the Golden Gophers and Minnesota-Duluth on Thursday. The exhibition game, which tips off at 7 pm at The Barn, will be the last and only chance to see the Gophers play against a team other than themselves before the season starts.
Richard Pitino will coach in his first non-conference tournament championship game of his career on Thursday night. The coach on the other bench is no stranger to championship basketball. Richard Pitino was five years old when Brown won the national title in 1988, 22 when Brown won his first NBA title with the Pistons. At age 31, Pitino hopes to give the 73 year old Brown his first N.I.T. championship loss.
For the second time in three seasons, the Gophers will play in the N.I.T. semi-finals in New York City. Their opponent, the Florida State Seminoles, failed to make the NCAA tournament in large part because of their loss back in December to the Golden Gophers in the Big Ten – ACC Challenge. The Gophers will be out for revenge too, in a bit more convoluted way. Their once “good win” over the Seminoles grew more mediocre as the season went on, and as the Seminoles slowly fell apart, so did Minnesota’s chance to return to the NCAA tournament.
The home careers of Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi, and Malik Smith will come to an end Tuesday night against Southern Mississippi. Unlike senior day, when the finality was hopeful, this will really be the end, win or loss. If the Gophers win, they’ll head to the N.I.T. Final Four for the second time in three seasons, and will earn the trip to New York City on their home floor for the first time since 1998.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers survived February, their cruelest month, and now head to Michigan to start the month of madness. Despite the encouraging in over Iowa earlier this week, Minnesota is still firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble. Michigan, who long ago secured their spot in the NCAA tournament, continues to battle Michigan State for the conference title.
Life on the bubble, and particularly life on the bubble in the Big Ten, is full of second, third, and fourth chances. The Minnesota Golden Gophers have yet another opportunity to save their season on Tuesday night when the Iowa Hawkeyes come to town for a nationally televised game. A rivalry that seemed to be on the verge of death a few years ago is once again alive and well. The Gophers ruined Iowa’s chance to make the NCAA tournament with an Austin Hollins buzzer beater a year ago. Iowa hopes to send the Minnesota to the NIT this year. College basketball is nothing without rivalries, and it is much better when those rivalry games matter.
Everyone talks about the NCAA tournament bubble this time of year, but a better metaphor is probably a cliff. After losing a very winnable game against last place Illinois, the Golden Gophers are perched three short steps from the precipice. With each regular season loss, they get a step closer, and at step number three, they go over the edge, crashing into the NIT. A path to the NCAA tournament still exists, but it is fraught with danger.