What’s that? Gopher basketball is around the corner? Every year it’s amazing to me how it’s all summer, summer, summer and BOOM, college basketball season. And here we are, about to embark on what promises to be one of the most entertaining seasons we’ve had in decades.
I mean, think about it. We’ve got a team on our hands that graduated ONE PLAYER, and one that wasn’t even a starter until halfway through the season. You could make an argument that the Gophers return their entire starting lineup, and that’s with a team that went 11-7 in the conference and ended up as a 5-seed in the Big Dance.
More? Okay. They bring back a first-team All-B1G point guard, a third-team All-B1G power forward, the conference freshman of the year, the conference defensive player of the year and the conference coach of the year. Oh, and they add a silky four-star point guard from New York and lights-out shooting guard to the mix. This is a TEAM, you guys.
Last year was perhaps the most fun I’ve ever had as a Gopher basketball fan, considering expectations were near zero heading into the season and the scope of the turnaround we witnessed. I don’t even particularly care that they lost to Middle Tennessee in the first round. Yeah, it didn’t go our way, but by that point I was so drunk on the season-long joyride that it was a footnote to the season.
But this year? Boy. Things are different. First off, there are expectations now. And you know how Minnesota programs do with expectations. Not good. We like being the underdog that defies the 8-point spread and gut punches you on the way out. We don’t do well with targets on our backs. The Gophers clocked in at #13 on the early CBS Sports Top 25. That’s higher than teams like Gonzaga, Louisville, UCLA and Xavier. People think we’re legit. It’s a scary time to be a fan.
But what does last year mean for this year? That we return basically everyone from last year is crazy, and a huge boon to the prospects of success for this year’s team. They have so much continuity, veteran leadership and familiarity that the sky’s the limit. Seriously. Veteran teams are the ones that tend to succeed in college basketball, and when you’re on the road in a crazy crunch-time environment, having been there can do wonders. If things go REALLY right? This is a sleeper Final Four team. I’ll say it.
The Gophers were road warriors last year, winning five road games en route to an 11-7 finish in the conference. That type of performance is the mark of a team that can get it done, even if they left some games on the table. To continue the magic, it’s consistent performances on the road that will keep them near the top of the standings.
A HUGE drawback to this season is the absence of Eric Curry, who tore his ACL in an offseason pick-up game. Those injuries can happen at any time to anyone, but with Curry, that’s a major pain point for the Gophers. He was a workhorse last year who spelled Reggie Lynch when he inevitably ran into foul trouble. And while Curry didn’t always fill up the stat sheet, he was a grinder who contributed to a lot of game-changing plays. He always seemed to be involved in or around good things that happened at the wire. In short, he was a difference maker whenever he was out there, and was prepped for a major step forward this year. Instead, guys like Davonte Fitzgerald will have to fill the gap, which makes for more uncertainly than we would’ve had with Curry in tow.
The biggest thing I’m worried about with this year’s team is how they’ll do with a target on their back. They pulled a few upsets last year because, you know, no one thought people like Nate Mason or Jordan Murphy were anything to worry about, and only figured it out when it was too late. Minnesota won’t have that luxury this year and will be the ones that others are gunning for. How does the team deal with that? They developed the ability to step up in big moments last year as the season wore on, and it really looked like something clicked halfway through. That’s a breath of fresh air from the Tubby teams we saw who folded in February like a cheap suit.
But let’s let ‘er rip. We’ve got the personnel, the moxie and the firepower to do a lot of damage this year. And if last season was any indication this is a team to take very seriously. Win or lose, this year is going to be a wild ride.