The last few years have been relatively similar for Gopher basketball. Relatively high expectations to enter the season, a very good non-conference season followed by mediocre play in the Big Ten. And then there was last year, but we'll get to that later. So what are the expectations and then the best and worst case scenarios for Gopher basketball in 2011-12?
2008-09 and 2009-10 the Gophers entered the season thinking that at best they could be a Sweet 16 team and worst they'd be a bubble team that fell to the NIT (aka Northwestern Invitational Tournament). Both years they at times looked like both and ended up somewhere in the middle. 2010-11 looked to be much of the same but some things beyond what could have been a worst case scenario happened and the bottom of the preseason expectations fell out.
So what are this year's expectations? Tubby was coy about his expectations at today's Big Ten Media Day press conference.
We think we have a chance to be a much improved team, after going - losing 10 or our 11 games last year. We lost in many different ways.
So I think my expectations are this would be much more competitive in the Big Ten. That's something we've really struggled with since we've been here. Haven't kept that momentum from our non-league play or early season into conference play.
So we've got to figure out a way to be more consistent. So my personal goal is to be more consistent. We expect to be in post season play this year.
Nothing to exciting in that quote so if coach won't lay out a high or low for the season then I will.
Best Case Scenario
The non-conference schedule is fairly easy. 13 total games and all of them could be wins. At least eight of those are against non-BCS level opponents who are not poised to be NCAA participants or really challenge for their own league titles. Those should absolutely be eight wins. The other five are against USC who lost a lot from last year including their returning PG who tore his ACL, Virginia Tech who graduated their top 2 scorers from a year ago in the B1G/ACC Challenge, Big East's worst team DePaul in round one of the Old Spice Classic and then two more games in the Old Spice Classic (bracket here). 12-1 or even 13-0 is very realistic.
The Big Ten schedule is very favorable with Ohio State and Purdue only showing up once on the schedule, both at home. 11 or 12 wins is possible if everything falls right. That usually means we win the games we should win, pick up a couple that we shouldn't and have a favorable record in games against other teams in the middle.
So best case would be right around 24 wins and a 3rd or 4th place finish in the Big Ten. That would likely put in the running for a 4 or 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Continuing with our best-case scenario we would win two maybe three games in the NCAA Tournament before we gracefully bow out in a highly contested game against a higher ranked opponent.
How would this happen? Well, everyone has to play at or above expectations. Rodney Williams and Ralph Sampson need to take steps forward from last year. The trio of new guards need to be as good or better than advertised. Oto becomes a dangerous shooter. Our roster becomes a defensive tornado forcing turnovers that lead to points. And the Barn is a feared place to come and visit in the middle of a cold Minnesota winter. Can all of these things happen? Sure but that is a perfect storm of good things happening to the program.
Worst Case Scenario
Last year we didn't have a PG and we had Hoffarber at SG. This year we still don't know if we have a PG, we assume we'll be better at point but we don't know that. The only point guard you have seen play is Maverick Ahanmisi and we are pretty sure that will not translate into a decent Big Ten finish in the standings. And we don't have a SG nearly as reliable as Hoffarber. Maybe Rodney gets better, maybe Ralph gets better but really nothing should lead us to believe that is going to be the case. Trevor is a beast but to expect he'll go from 14 and 10 most nights to much more than that is kind of a stretch considering his range is basically limited to spots on the floor where he can dunk.
Non-conference games should still yield us a minimum of nine wins. Maybe we drop one to a weak team and then lose in the Old Spice Classic before losing to USC and Virginia Tech. That is not a crazy scenario. In the Big Ten we may very easily end up as low as 9th place. I am quite confident that unless things go as bad as they did a year ago we are a better team than Iowa, Penn State and Nebraska so 9th place is my worst case scenario.
Not only do we miss the NCAA Tournament but we are once again not even good enough for the NIT. Mbakwe and Sampson graduate, Rodney Williams leaves for the NBA (what?) and we are left to rebuild our frontcourt after failing to rebuild our backcourt this year.
I think we absolutely go 12-1 in the non-conference schedule. This year our Big Ten schedule is rather favorable and I think we can get to 10 conference wins. That should be good enough for a 4th or 5th place finish in conference. 23-25 total wins after the Big Ten Tournament would certainly get us into the NCAA Tournament as a 5 or 6 seed and this year we get a win.
I am optimistic but not over the top (yet). I'm making assumptions that we will be an aggressive and athletic team defensively that scores more points than we did a year ago largely because of generating turnovers. I'm assuming we stay healthy and we have to get some competency out of our backcourt. I will caution to not get too carried away when we start the year 12-1 and are ranked in the top 15. We will come back to earth, but the fall won't be nearly as far as it was a year ago.