The #8 team in the country has gotten off to a nice 2-0 start in the Big Ten. We all know how big the Michigan State home win to start the conference season was. And that was followed up by doing what you are supposed to do by beating a bottom tier team at home. Now things get difficult and the Gophers are going to have to prove they can win on the road.
The 2-0 start is great and we have 16 games remaining. I know that with each win expectations are rising but the reality is we may go .500 the rest of the way and still finish with a respectable 10-8 record. I don't expect that to happen but this is a difficult league and we will lose games along the way. Expectations are rising but I really hope we do not get too high early only to overreact to what might be a string of losses in the near future. The next three games are at Illinois, at Indiana and home to Michigan. Taking each game individually, those could all three be losses. I fear what the reaction will be to this team if we are 2-3 through five Big Ten games.
The point is to always remember not to get too high or too low during short stretches of the season. The next three games are all against very good teams with two of them being on the road. But don't freak out if all does not go so well, the four games following all look more palatable. If your bar is winning the Big Ten, then winning one (probably 2) of the next three games is imperative. If your level of expectations is slightly below that then don't get too high or too low, let all 18 games play out. When we start losing to bad teams and good teams then you can get overly concerned.
The next three games are going to be good ones. How good? Good enough that Tom Dienhart ranks Gophers @ Indiana as the #1 Big Ten game of the week and then Gophers @ Illinois as the #2 Big Ten game of the week.
First off is a difficult trip to Champaign, Illinois to face the #12 Fighting Illini. From the beginning I have not been fully sold on the Illini, but they have one of the best backcourts in the conference and are capable of beating anybody. Their first couple Big Ten games are perfect examples of what to expect from Illinois this year. After losing at Purdue to a team that is about as offensively challenged as there is in the Big Ten they went home and beat Ohio State by 19.
A huge statistical key for the Illini is defensive rebounding. When they limit opponents to under 39% offensive rebounding they tend to win. In four games where the opponent cleaned up the offensive glass they either lost (Missouri and Purdue) or the opponent was terrible (Hawaii and Western Carolina). This is a good sign for Minnesota. We'll get into more detail before Wednesday's game but I think we match-up well with Illinois and I'd like to think that our physical defense will make things too difficult for their spread ball-screen offense.
Then it doesn't get any easier with a Saturday trip to Indiana. The team that spent most of the season as the #1 ranked team in the country with one of the top candidates for national player of the year on their roster...that Indiana. Expect a loss here. Not only is this in Assembly Hall, but the Hoosiers have an extra couple days to rest/prepare for the Gophers. They'll be ready and should use the home court to their advantage.
And then we get to come back to the cozy confines of The Barn to face the #2 team in the country. Michigan is a team that scares me more than any other Big Ten team this year. Fortunately we only face them once and that meeting will be in Minneapolis. This should be a great game. This is one that could push us into conversation as Big Ten champs. It won't make or break anything but going 2-1 in this stretch and then beating the current favorite in your only meeting would be huge.
Three very challenging games. Nobody said the Big Ten would be a picnic this year and the Gophers will find that out very quickly. Fortunately we are a physical team that has thrived on big games this year.