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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
We may never know what caused Wednesday’s second half meltdown, and it would be best if we never did. It could have been the first road game, choking under pressure, growing pains for a team still integrating four new players, or maybe the distraction from Daquain McNeil’s arrest and suspension caught up. Maybe it was all of those at once. Hopefully it was at least one of those, because if it was something other than an aberration, the once promising season could become long and arduous very quickly. Luckily, the Gophers won’t have to wait long to try to get back on track.
Sports, for better or worse, can be a distraction from the perils of the world. The N.I.T. tournament in New York City was supposed to be that for Gopher basketball fans, and perhaps it can still be. However, the arrest of Daquein McNeil on suspicion of domestic abuse has distracted from that distraction. Zips wrote about the basketball impact earlier today. The non-basketball impact is going to be much more significant, both for McNeil, and the alleged victim. A few things seem to be true. McNeil has had a very difficult life, domestic violence is a learned behavior, and luckily there are wonderful organizations doing great work in Minneapolis to help both victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse. Regardless of McNeil’s future with the team, hopefully he gets the help he needs.
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.