At the beginning of the season, when there were a variety of unknowns about the squad and we had pretty low expectations for the Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s basketball team. Even the most optimistic of fans were only predicting 9 conference wins and being a higher tier NIT squad. But then something strange happened...
The Gophers’ overhauled roster out-performed our wildest expectations in the non-conference schedule. This included victories over UT-Arlington, St. John’s, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt. They lost to a talented Florida State team in Tallahassee. They entered the conference slate at 12-1 with no bad losses and, at the time, three wins that could be considered “quality wins” by KenPom and RPI. This was a 13 game stretch. Granted, 11 of these games were played at the comfy confines of the Barn but this wasn’t some four game aberration or fluky run of play. This was an obvious pattern.
Minnesota’s KenPom overall efficiency rating had steadily climbed from 71st in the nation to begin the season to 47th entering their first conference game against Michigan State at home. Everyone was pleasantly surprised and cautiously confident the team could represent themselves well in conference play as a scrappy wildcard but no one expected them to survive a tough schedule and the vigorous nature of the Big Ten. Then, another strange thing happened....
The Gophers played an impressive stretch of four games to start the conference slate. They won in West Lafayette and Evanston in back-to-back games. Guess who the only other visiting team to have won a game in one of those locations this year is?
If you said the reigning National Champions and currently ranked #1 Villanova Wildcats (they won in West Lafayette on November 14th), you would be correct.
Point being, they scored two very impressive wins on their resume, lost at home in overtime to Michigan State and beat Ohio State at the Barn. They were 3-1 in conference play with an overall record of 15-2. KenPom had them at 32nd overall in the national and the RPI was rip-roaring drunk, rating the Gophers 5th in the country. And then... the streak happened.
You may now be wondering why I’m recounting the season to you. You’re probably thinking, “Hey mowe0018, guess what?! I’ve been watching every game and I know what happened, you idiot! So get to the point of your prolix drivel!”
Well the reason I must state the above is because the reactions from Gopher fans to this losing streak are various and most of them are missing the point. Here are some of the reactions I am getting a sense exist from a wide swath of Gopherdom.
This team isn’t good enough and they are showing their “true” colors now. They are an NIT team.
This team has been unlucky and just lost some tough, close games in conference play. This happens.
This team has already out-performed my wildest expectations! I can’t fault them for hitting a rough patch, especially since they are so young.
Well, guess what?
Components of all these reactions are wrong. And this has me frustrated. So let me dispel some misnomers that are components of the above three reactions.
Misnomer #1 - This team isn’t “good” enough for the NCAA Tournament.
This is incorrect based on our current 21 game sample size or in other words, a significant portion of the schedule including eight Big Ten games. As of this moment in time, the Gophers are ranked 20th nationally in the RPI, still a huge factor come selection time, and 39th nationally in the KenPom efficiency rating system. They have played the 35th strongest schedule in the country according to KenPom and the 11th hardest according to RPI. A team from a major conference with these numbers does not get left out of the NCAA Tournament. It just doesn’t happen. And these ratings take into consideration the horrid stretch of play the last four games have been. So even with poor performance, this is still a tournament team by every metric. Just because the “eye-test” doesn’t like something about this team doesn’t mean squat when compared to real data. This team is good and it is certainly good enough to warrant inclusion in the 68-team field come March.
Misnomer #2 - This team has been unlucky.
This is harder to refute because some people believe you make your own luck while others think you can define it statistically albeit with difficulty. If we consider KenPom’s luck rating, we rank 219th in the nation in luck (37.6th percentile nationally) which would point to us being “unlucky.” In a simpler analysis, we are 4-4 in games decided by 6 points or less. So we have, more or less, broken even in this respect. I don’t believe we’ve been “unlucky” but we also haven’t been gifted a bunch of close games either like Maryland for instance.
Misnomer #3 - This team is young and therefore more likely to fold
This narrative must die quickly. The top six players on this team in minutes played per conference game are, in order, a true freshman with 13 games of starting experience under his belt, 2nd year starter junior, 2nd year starter sophomore, sophomore, fifth year senior, and a redshirt junior. Just because Amir Coffey plays significant minutes does not make this some super young team especially considering that youth didn’t seem to matter much during the first three games of the conference slate. The other freshman on the roster, Eric Curry and Michael Hurt, combined to play 22.7 minutes out of a total of 200 available minutes. If you combined that with Coffey’s 35 minutes a game, you get 57.5 minutes. Upperclassmen play a combined 57.9. Players with a year’s worth of starting experience play a combined 110.6 minutes a game.
The team isn’t some incredibly young roster starting multiple freshmen or players who haven’t seen what Big Ten level competition is like. The moderate amount of youth on the roster does not excuse the performance of this team in any one game and doing as such discredits the amount of talent on the roster and the numerous quality victories the team has accumulated thus far.
The expectations for this team at the beginning of the year should be disregarded. There were too many unknown variables in the rather long equation that make up a college basketball season. This team, as it has shown through 21 games, is a talented bunch that can win even in the most difficult of environments. As we begin to fill in the equation that was once full of unknowns, the numbers depicting the Minnesota resume paint a picture of a team that, while currently struggling, still projects to finish 9-9 in Big Ten play and has a body of work that would qualify for a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Bracketologists across the internet still have Minnesota, even after this putrid stretch of play, safely in the bracket.
Failing to make March Madness, in my opinion, would cast a shadow on this season. The team isn’t as young as people want to believe. Coach Pitino has had three and a half years to figure out the Big Ten as a head coach. Just because last year was the biggest tire fire in the history of the Minnesota basketball program from an on-court perspective does not excuse this squad from their stretch of poor play and does not excuse them from failing to make the Big Dance as they are fully capable of doing. Up until today, they have accomplished the following:
- An absolute demolition of Arkansas (KenPom: 44, RPI: 27)
- A neutral court win over Vanderbilt (63, 60)
- A win in West Lafayette against Purdue (11, 28)
- A win in Evanston against Northwestern (31, 33)
- No sub-100 losses according to the RPI or KenPom (AKA no bad losses)
Over the course of two-thirds of the season, there is enough illustrative statistical evidence to suggest that this team should make the NCAA Tournament. One might disagree but the evidence says otherwise. As frustrating as this streak has been, the expectations of the Big Dance should still be present for this squad and both players and coaches should be held accountable if they do indeed fail in their efforts.