If you’re a University of Minnesota basketball fan, last season was one to forget. Just throw it away, and don’t ever think about it again.
The Gophers finished 8-23, including just 2-16 in Big Ten play. The conference wins were home games against Maryland and Rutgers. But some of the non-conference losses were ugly, including South Dakota, South Dakota State and UW-Milwaukee. It was a season marred by a lack of depth and off-the-court issues with one player’s dismissal and the suspension of four others near the end of the season.
Now that we’ve hashed that out, the Gophers improved to 8-1 after beating the New Jersey Institute of Technology 74-68 Tuesday night. Don’t let the name fool you, they’ve played with tough teams and they were no slouch. So that’s right, nine games in and Minnesota has already matched last year’s win total. The Gophers could conceivably be 12-1 heading into Big Ten play. They’re a completely different group and they’re fun to watch, and it’s a big year for coach Richard Pitino to earn back the trust of fans.
Here are four reasons to buy into Gophers basketball this year. If things keep progressing, you could hear Minnesota’s name called on Selection Sunday in March.
Can Exceed Last Season’s Win Total Before Big Ten Play
Winning solves a lot of problems within a program, but the Gophers have already showed clear progress since last year’s disaster. Coach Pitino now has more talent and depth to work with than he has since his first year, when the Gophers won the NIT. Tuesday night’s win at Williams Arena helped the Gophers match their win total from last year, and they’ll exceed that number before the grind of the Big Ten schedule. Maybe more importantly, Pitino and the Gophers players didn’t feel like they played great in Tuesday’s win. Yet, they still found a way. That’s what good teams do.
More wins equals more confidence, and there’s not a better sports arena in the Twin Cities than Williams Arena when Gopher basketball is relevant. They open Big Ten play against Michigan State at “The Barn” on Dec. 27, and it should be a packed house if they’re 12-1.
Completely Different Roster From 2015-16 Season
It’s not a big secret to figure out the early success: The Gophers have a lot more talent than last year, and a lot more depth. The new group is led largely by freshman Amir Coffey, the Gophers current leading scorer at 13.8 points per game. They’re also getting about 8.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and more than three blocks per game from transfer Reggie Lynch. He’s second in the Big Ten and fourth nationally in blocks.
Freshman Eric Curry has been a bright spot with about seven points per game and nearly seven rebounds, and graduate transfer Akeem Springs gives them another perimeter shooting threat. Springs led the Gophers Tuesday with 19 points off the bench. Combine that all with returners Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer and Jordan Murphy, and the Gophers are a much more skilled, athletic team that can give a lot of teams problems.
They’ve even gotten productive minutes from center Bakary Konate, who wasn’t ready to play last year but had no other choice. He wasn’t an offensive weapon inside and was foul prone. Now he’s playing minutes off the bench and being put in positions to succeed, while still having a lot to learn.
Went 2-1 In Early Non-Conference Power 5 Tests
The Gophers early non-conference schedule this year has included three Power 5 opponents: Arkansas, Florida State and Vanderbilt. The result? A 2-1 record. Minnesota beat Arkansas at home, lost at Florida State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and rallied from behind late to beat Vanderbilt last Saturday at the Sanford Pentagon Center. It was technically a neutral site victory, but the Sioux Falls, South Dakota arena was filled with Gophers fans. Regardless, beating two opponents from other strong conferences also shows progress from last season.
Pitino might have been most uneasy about the Gophers’ game against UT-Arlington, considered by many a favorite in their league and an NCAA Tournament team. It was the Gophers’ second game of the season, and they pulled away in the second half for an 84-67 victory. The Gophers have yet to lose a game against a lesser team, something other Big Ten teams have fallen victim to. Even though they had a close win over NJIT Tuesday, Ohio State lost at home to Florida Atlantic Tuesday. Weird things happen when you’re not focused and after last year’s struggles, the Gophers must respect every opponent.
Gophers Winning With Defense
Minnesota’s offense still has some work to do, but the Gophers are winning with depth and defense. Coffey, Mason, Murphy and McBrayer are all averaging double figures in scoring, but the Gophers length on defense and protection at the rim has been a major difference maker. Lynch is one of the best shot blockers in the country, and they have a multitude of players who alter shots with their length. They’ve also greatly improved in their rebounding.
The Gophers currently lead the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense, limiting opponents to about 36 percent shooting per game. They’re also second in three-point defense, with opponents shooting 28.7 percent from the perimeter. It’s a recipe that, if it can be sustained, can lead to a lot of success when Big Ten play starts.
Most fans will want to see the Gophers face Michigan State before they buy into the program, but at the very least they should be competitive in every game this season. It might lead them to the Big Dance.