Before the Big Ten season tipped off, Myron Medcalf assembled some of the best and brightest minds in the area to vote in a weekly Big Ten Power Poll. I was asked to represent TDG in this prestigious and elite group of Gopher fans. In reality I was probably asked only after several people said no but I'll take what I can get. The poll has been a lot of fun but I wanted to add to the fun by posing a few questions to the group. Once everyone responds I'll summarize the responses and share with the world.
So I posed the following questions to the group, below are my answers and on Monday I'll give you the groups responses.
1 - The Gophers endured probably the most difficult start to the Big Ten season that one could imagine. On the road against three of the league's best all resulted in a loss, though two of those games were one possessions games with under a minute to go. Now Purdue is the only road game left against an upper-tier Big Ten team, but what about the other road games? What road game against a mid or lower tier team concerns you the most and why?
Easily the road game that most concerns me is Penn State. A month ago I would have thought Michigan or Northwestern, and they won't be easy outs, but Penn State has righted their ship since Big Ten games began. Penn State entered the Big Ten season 7-4 losing all four games by double-digits including Maryland by 23 and Maine by 10. Their seven wins were arguably the least impressive collection of wins in the league as well. But now the Nittany Lions are a surprising 3-3 in conference play. They beat Michigan State and Illinois at home before they came within 3 of beating Ohio State on the road.
It is interesting that defensively they were stronger in the non-conference, but they have started shooting better and turning the ball over less. Jeff Brooks and David Jackson have raised their ppg average by at least a point and a half. And of course they have the Taylor Battle who for my money is the most feared player in the Big Ten. I am not looking forward to the trip to Happy Valley for our Gophers.
2 - The short bench and minutes played by starters has been a hot topic lately. To me there are two angles to this topic. First of all this means we are forced to rely on a few true freshmen in the backcourt for the rest of the Big Ten season. By the time we get to the Big Ten tournament which of the freshmen will step up (if any) and be a consistent factor off the bench. Secondly, can the current starters (plus Iverson) continue to play the extended minutes they are playing for the remaining schedule? Will they be able to apply pressure defense and play transition offense without wearing down?
I'm personally not holding my breath that any of the freshmen will be reliable in the post season. Best case scenario is Hollins and Armelin continue to grow in confidence and they'll be able to play an extra couple minutes each half giving our starters more time to rest. Those two certainly can add some value but I would never expect more than 6-8 points out of either of them on a good night. My expectations are simple. Play a solid 4 minutes each half and don't turn the ball over. Occasionally you'll get some offensive contributions like Ahanmisi's 6 points against Indiana and Hollins' huge buckets against Purdue, but I am not counting on that being consistent.
The real question is how will this affect the rest of our roster. Really Hoffarber and Nolen have been playing 32-34 minutes per game all year. We just need to keep them from playing 39 minutes. Just a few minutes of rest each half goes a long way towards being fresh enough in the final minutes to be effective. The frontcourt is another story. The guys who have really seen their minutes dramatically increase has been Mbakwe, Sampson and Williams. Williams has been playing much better lately and Mbakwe is our best player so those guys need to be playing extended minutes anyway. Sampson is, of course, hit or miss but he too should be playing more minutes.
I'm not concerned that we'll wear down, I'm OK with the minutes being played by the "6 starters". As long as the freshmen continue to play with confidence and don't turn the ball over this team will be fine.
3 - The Gophers haven’t won a Big Ten title, officially, since 1982. Even if you include the vacated Big Ten title in 1997, this program has finished top three in the Big Ten two times since the 1980-81 season. "What will it take for this program to make the strides necessary to compete for Big Ten titles in basketball?"
Time, patience, luck. When you are not a traditional power you need to get the right staff in place and give them some time. Even then you need some luck or at least you need to avoid bad luck. Last year's team could have easily been a top 3 team had they been able to play Trevor Mbakwe. And that same team could have been special if Royce White would have come to school with his head on straight and ready to give us an offensive boost we were lacking.
I have no doubt that Tubby Smith can lead this program to a top 3 finish and with some luck win a league title. Recruiting may need to pick up a little bit. Last year's class brought in a lot of guys but there were no standouts and next year's class looks good but still no 4-star type talent. But year in and year out we should be a team with juniors and seniors. We just need to get lucky and land a Talor Battle type player. A three-star recruit who ends up being a dynamic go-to stud taking us from a good to a great team.
Ultimately I like where our program is. We are about to make the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year. That has never been done in the program's history. We moved from a low-tier team to the top of the mid-tier teams. We are knocking on the door of the top 3, but I don't see a conference championship anytime in our near future.
4 - Let's move on to some Big Ten talk. We've all been participating in the power poll and Ohio State has been the near unanimous #1 all season. It would be hard to argue that anyone else will win the league but when all is said and done who will be the second best team in the conference and why?
It pains me to write this but I'm going to go with Wisconsin. I know that Purdue has a 2 game lead on the Badgers but the Boilermakers haven't played anybody yet. Michigan State isn't playing very well, Illinois is too inconsistent and I like the Badgers balance. It will probably be at least three teams within a game of each other or even all tied but if I had to project my Big Ten #2 it would be Wisconsin.
5 - The Barn...stand up or sit down? Here is your opportunity to rant...
Really I don't care. If I'm at the game I'll stand up and cheer when I want to cheer, if people want to sit they can sit. But I guess it is kind of lame to attend a game expect others to sit quietly and watch. Maybe this is a Minnesota thing. One time I was at a Twins game in the Dome. I was sitting along the 3B line so you all know how you had to turn your body to see home plate. Well there was a pitching change so while the relief pitcher was warming up I stood up to stretch and some guy (in the next section over) yells "sit down, you jerk!" Anyway, people HAVE to understand that some people go to the games to cheer for their team. If you've paid good money and have been loyal supporters of the program for years, you have every right to enjoy the game however you want. Sit down, stand up, whatever but don't expect the rest of The Barn to sit quietly so as not to disturb you.