First of all the Monday Perspective realizes that it is Sunday, but we are eager for Monday.
I have heard a lot of conversation surrounding this afternoon's Gopher hoops conference opener against Michigan State. Some, particularly in the local media, are calling this a must-win game. I'm here to offer some needed perspective on game 1 of 18 Big Ten basketball games.
The definition of a must-win game is open to interpretation.
Elimination Game - Strictly speaking a must-win game is one that you absolutely have to win or your season is over. This would include tournament games or games that you clearly need to win to be considered for post-season play. This afternoon's game does not fall into this category and I don't think anybody who has thrown this around is meaning "must-win" by the strictest definition. And in absolutely no way is this a must-win game when it comes to extending the season.
Critical Toward Winning Anything Meaningful Game - If you want to win the Big Ten, or really be in the conversation, then this is a game you have to win. It is going to take 13+ wins to win the league and you kind of have to win nearly all of your home games. Michigan State is not a powerhouse and if you want to be at or near the top you need to beat other good teams along the way. There is some measure of truth to this line of thinking but in no way does losing this game eliminate the Gophers from a Big Ten title. It makes it more challenging, it does not erase all hope.
Barometer Game - You think you are good? Then beat another good team. This game will say something about the Gophers one way or the other. And then we can formulate our opinion of this team based on this one game. This is a bad line of thinking. One game does not define a season, one game is exactly that. I'll come back to this one later, but do not make broad judgements about this team based on this one game, regardless of the outcome.
For Me To Take You Seriously Game - The loosest of definitions for what some call a "must-win" game. For those who have to write about, cover, talk about a whole host of teams in this market you need to win this game for me to take you seriously. I think this is what most people are referring to when they throw out that hosting Michigan State is a must win. This then becomes just a personal choice, I will pay attention if you win and will ignore you if you lose until you give me reason to do otherwise.
Really, I don't think this game qualifies as a must-win based on any of those definitions that I just made up. It is an important game, but a must-win it is not. Basketball is a fluid game and the season is as well, this is not a must win for a couple of reasons.
First of all, do not let yourself get caught up in the value of a December 31st game as being anything more than one out of 18. There are 17 remaining games, a loss today is just one game. I realize that to be in the title conversation you need to win most of your home games along with a healthy share of your road games. But an undefeated home season is not a prerequisite. We will lose a home game or two (or three or four) and there is no shame in losing to a quality team regardless of the venue or which quality team it is. Michigan tied for the Big Ten title last year and they lost to Purdue at home. Ohio State lost to Michigan State and Wisconsin at home and they tied for the conference lead as well. You can lose to good teams at home and still be relevant.
Does anyone believe that losing this game means the current Gopher roster is incapable of winning in the Big Ten? I hope not.
Secondly, this is a good team we are facing. Michigan State is one of several very good Big Ten teams. Yes, you have to beat some good teams along the way if you are going to be a truly good team as well. Why is this particular game the must-win of the bunch? Are we going to hear that when we host Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa these too are must wins? Any why would losing this game be worse than losing to Northwestern, Penn State or Nebraska at home? And then can we assume that it is OK to lose to Indiana and Michigan at home, but Michigan State is a "must-win"? It seems to me that the expectation to win this particular game is solely because it is the first one on the schedule.
Which leads me to the third reason that this is not a "must-win". If this game were third on the schedule following a 14-point win over Northwestern and a big road win over Illinois, then this game wouldn't be carrying so much weight. There are so many variables and unknowns for the next three months of basketball that we have no idea how important this particular game is or is not. A loss at home but a win in East Lansing would seem to cancel each other out and then this "must-win" turns out to be just another game, like the other 17. A loss makes getting to 12 or 13 (or more) wins slightly more challenging but it is still doable and this is still a good team.
Which reminds me...regardless of the outcome, we are still a good team. Imagine a hard-fought game, a close game and one that Michigan State pulls out by a couple points in the end. Does this mean that we are not as good as we thought we were? Does it mean we are not capable of beating other good teams? No. Sometimes you lose to good teams, sometimes you beat good teams. Basketball is a funny game and this one is going to be a battle.
This post sounds so negative, like I'm expecting a loss. I AM NOT! And this argument goes both ways. When we win this afternoon, do not get carried away. We will beat a good team on our home floor. This is what good teams do. But it is one win with 17 more games to play. We will have some good wins throughout the year and we will lose some games throughout the year. Today's game does not define our season. Today's game does not give anyone the authority to broadly paint what will happen the rest of the season. This is a big game, an exciting game and one where the Barn should resemble what some of us recall as being the old days.
A win over a ranked opponent, one we have struggled with in recent years, would further the belief that the Gophers are for real this year. A big game? Yes, without question. A must-win? No, not yet.