Outside of TDG I fear there is a collective yawn towards the 7-1 (now 8-1, but I started this post last week) and ranked start by the Golden Gopher basketball team. If not a yawn, at least some level of apprehension, waiting for the season to turn sour when we get to the Big Ten. The belief is that once again they have played a weak schedule, beating terrible teams to boost their record and they are still ill-prepared for the rigors of the Big Ten season. Not everyone believes this to be true, those who are actually paying attention do not, but I do feel like many casual Gopher fans are suffering from the strain of the Glen Mason syndrome.
But this team is different from years past and this team really does stand a chance to have Tubby's most successful season at Minnesota. This statement begs some definition as to why this team is actually better and it also demands that we define successful.
First and foremost, the schedule that the Gophers have played on their way to a 7-1 record is dramatically different than it was in 2011 and in 2010 when they also started 7-1. Below are our first 8 games over the last three seasons and the KenPom ranking of each opponent.
|South Dakota St
|Mount St. Mary's
|North Dakota St
I would argue, as I did at the times, that we had an OK non-conference schedule the last couple years but they are nothing like this year's. Four games against top 50 teams is double that of the last two seasons at this point. That is a difficult schedule. I can hear Reusse whining now, "yeah but look at Wisconsin going down to Florida and Michigan State facing Kansas. And Tubby gets the benefit of a challenging tournament, teams he did not schedule himself." That is only true of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, which we have no say in.
Obviously the Gopher staff doesn't get to pick the other seven teams in their holiday tournament but they know what they are signing up for and they are not shying away from quality opponents. This is a good schedule and one of the best in the Big Ten. Wisconsin gets some of credit for going to Florida. But they also scheduled a few teams far worse than anything the Gophers have faced, their average KenPom rank of opponent is 148 (and it should be pointed out that any other team ranked in the top 200 was "not scheduled" by Wisconsin).
|Slippery Rock (D2)
|North Dakota St
|Sam Houston St
|North Carolina St
You can see that most of the rest of the Big Ten isn't going out of their way to schedule teams any tougher than we are, at least not this year. Some may have problems with Gopher schedules in the past but this year's is legit.
So what? What does that have to do with this year's team being any different? Well, they are facing much tougher teams and beating them (except Duke). If you believe the line that you have to face difficult teams to adequately prepare you for Big Ten play, then we have done that this year. There are five games left against teams not at the same caliber as FSU, Memphis, Duke and Standford but there are a couple good tests in there yet and then you do need a couple games to work out the kinks before Big Ten season.
So we are facing good teams and we are beating good teams. But the 2010-11 team beat North Carolina and West Virginia before wilting in Big Ten play. That is true and even if you don't want to blame the poor finish on the loss of Al Nolen, there are other factors that demonstrate that this is a better overall team.
Defensively this is the best team we have seen in years. I don't recall any of Monson's teams being very good defensively save for the end of the 2004-05 season he made the NCAA Tournament when Jim Molinari as brought in to teach some actual defense. That team held opponents to 0.87 points per possession, that was the last time we were under 0.91. This year we are once again playing great defense in all areas other than defensive rebounds. And we are executing an efficient offense with balanced scoring.
We are not "playing good defense" with an athletic press that is forcing turnovers or padding blocked shot stats. We are actually playing sound defense with all five guys on the floor that is making it difficult for the opponent to run their offense and get good shots. In previous seasons opponents would often be able to execute exactly what they wanted to execute, getting open shots at key times in games. But this defense is different and I am really excited to see it in Big Ten play.
Finally on offense, this team is also different than we have seen in the past. We are running the same stuff, but we have a wider compliment of players who can contribute and beat a defense. The change in our offensive efficiency can be traced to two things. The maturation of Rodney Williams, who now makes better decisions offensively by knowing when to go and when to find someone else. He is playing within the offense and it is helping tremendously. Secondly, the dynamic ability of Andre Hollins on the offensive end is not something we have had out of a guard in a long time. He can beat you multiple ways and he too is not forcing it because he realizes that we have other shooters and scorers on the team.
Ultimately we have several guys who could end up leading the team in scoring on any given night. If Rodney and Andre are struggling it could easily be Mbakwe, Austin Hollins or Joe Coleman. This offense is the same we have seen over the last few years, but it is very different.
So I urge everyone to not take the lazy approach to this team by assuming they will crumble in the Big Ten like they have done before. The #easytake is to compare this team to teams in the recent past. I'm not declaring a Big Ten title, nor am I declaring a great run in the NCAA Tournament. Too many other variables like the fact that the Big Ten is really (REALLY) good this year (notice three teams in the top 5!) and it just takes one hot team to knock you out in the NCAA Tournament.
But this team is really good. They will be able to compete with anybody they face including the likes of Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State. So how do we define success for this season? My baseline expectations are a top 5 finish in the Big Ten with 10 or 11 wins and a favored seed in the NCAA Tournament. Why not more? I'd be surprised if we were to crack the top 3 in the Big Ten and then we are fighting with some other good teams for 4th like Michigan St, Wisconsin and Illinois. Who knows how the Big Ten season will play out and we might finish higher, but lower than 5th and I'd be really disappointed. When it comes to the NCAA Tournament I want a favored seed. If we are a 4 or 5 seed, then a win is absolutely expected. If we are a 6 or 7 seed, then it kind of depends on the match-up. The NCAA Tournament is often a crap-shoot, you might end up facing a team like a 10-seeded Gonzaga in 99 who goes to the Elite Eight or #8 George Mason who runs to the Final Four. Too unpredictable to make blanket statements in December.
You may still want more for baseline expectations, but in spite of the glowing paragraphs above this team is not perfect. Primarily defensive rebounding is becoming an increasing worry of mine, turnovers are getting better but are an issue and three-point shooting is bottom half of the Big Ten. It is tough to be a top-3 Big Ten team and a lock to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament unless you can diffuse a few of these issues.
The point is, this team is different than what we have seen in the recent past. Better non-conference schedule, better defense over the entire floor and a better offense that can beat teams in multiple ways. They are prepared to succeed in the Big Ten and they should be a lock to be a favored seed in the Tournament. I am really excited for the Big Ten season to get started!