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Minnesota Basketball: Pre-Season Rankings and What They Might Mean

The Gophers have been getting respect across the country during the build up to the 2017-2018 basketball season. Can they back up the positively trending perception of the program?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Minnesota vs Middle Tennessee State James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers enter the 2017-2018 season with more promise than any season in recent memory. While there were a few blips on the radar during the Tubby Smith tenure, none of his teams ever won 24 games, placed in the top four in the Big Ten Conference, or returned all five of its starters. The 2017-2018 edition of the Gophers not only meet all these criteria but they can be considered a strong squad for a few reasons that specifically pertain to college basketball.

  1. They have a strong defense. Almost every nation champion of the KenPom era has ranked in the top 15 in defensively efficiency. I’m not saying the Gophers are national title contenders (they aren’t unfortunately) but what I’m saying is that strong defense can take a team a long way and the Gophers play good defense, especially with the return of Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and senior center Reggie Lynch.
  2. They have an experienced back court. Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer have a combined 103 games started at the Division I level. Not many programs can claim that much experience. And while he doesn’t fit the “experienced” descriptor, Isaiah Washington should provide depth off the bench and a punch the second unit has rarely seen during the last several years at Minnesota.
  3. They have a dynamic, highly talented play-maker. Amir Coffey enters his sophomore season with a ton to build off of after a great freshman year. He can score, defend, and distribute. He is the type of player that can change a game by making his teammates better or by grabbing control himself. A player of his talent level is always present in college teams that find high levels of success.

I go over these reasons/examples because Minnesota has been identified by the college basketball landscape as a team to watch for during the upcoming season. Due to the reasons listed above, this attention is not misplaced. This is a talented squad with an identity and a coach in Richard Pitino who is entering his fifth year at the helm of the program and has asserted his identity, recruiting his preferred players, and has a system in place that will not require the type of uncertainty one might see at other programs. The talent is definitely there and while the depth isn’t spectacular, it is definitely at a level that is good enough for the team to compete at a very high level.

With this in mind, let’s examine exactly what the media and prognosticators have to say about this Minnesota squad before the season begins.

Human-Based Polls

SB Nation - 18th

AP Poll - 15th

USA Today Coach’s Poll - 15th

Sports Illustrated - 26th

ESPN Power Rankings - 10th

Computer-Based Rankings

Jeff Sagarin Ratings - 30th

Massey Ratings - 39th

KenPom Ratings - 36th

This is obviously not an exhaustive list of all the preseason prognosticating that has happened on the interwebs or in the media. But it does paint an interesting picture of the perception of the Gophers. It is fairly obvious that humans like coaches and media members have a very high opinion of this squad and, as stated previously, there are valid reasons for this perception. But there is an obvious discrepancy between the human opinion of the Gophers and the computer opinion of the Gophers.

I would like to point out that computer rankings at the beginning of the season have only year old data to work with. They have no perception of the season that is about to happen except for attempting to project what the returning players can do for the team based off of last year’s statistics. They also take into account the strength of the incoming recruiting class. While I thoroughly enjoy and trust advanced metrics, I don’t think they become particularly powerful until a season has actually begun. For example, Minnesota began last season ranked 71st in KenPom efficiency. (That was actually surprisingly high considering they were coming off an 8-win season and there was massive roster turnover. The uncertainty going into that season made Minnesota a hard team to predict.) But it’s important to note that the Gophers ended up being ranked 37th in KenPom’s rating system at the end of the 2016-2017 season.

All this is to say that while the computers don’t have as much confidence in the Gophers as human polls, I don’t think that we know quite yet which one will be more accurate. Expectations for this team, even in the face of losing Eric Curry for the season due to a knee injury, are as high as they’ve been for the basketball program in the last decade and a half. These expectations are definitely fair.

But we also have to keep in mind that preseason rankings don’t always correlate to accurate season predictions. Michigan State is the pick everyone is making to win the Big Ten and rightfully so based on the return of Miles Bridges, the amount of talent up and down their roster, and Tom Izzo still prowling the sidelines in East Lansing. But that doesn’t mean that they are guaranteed to win the Big Ten or be playing in San Antonio in the Final Four.

Personally, I see the Gophers as a team that will compete at a very high level both in and out of conference play. While it’s often hard to put exact numbers on a season before it evens starts, I expect Minnesota to be able to finish in the top four in the Big Ten again, be a competitive force throughout their conference schedule, much like they were last year, and the step forward I expect the team to make is to find a little more success when the calendar turns to March.

While we shouldn’t let the preseason polls dictate our opinion of the season and define what is “acceptable” from this team, it is important to note that the program is seen as being in a good place by national pundits and preseason prognosticators. Give credit where credit is due: Coach Pitino has followed through on his vision for the program. It took a few rocky years to turnover the roster and install his system but the process is beginning to yield results.

I can not wait for this season to begin and it starts with a bang as the second game of the season is an immediate test for the Gophers. They travel to Providence to face a team that KenPom has ranked 11 spots ahead of Minnesota. While this game won’t make or break the season, it could be a good indicator of who had it right in the preseason. If the Gophers win, the squad might be more the 12th-20th best team in the nation. If they lose, perhaps they are closer to 25th-35th.

We know that the pieces are there for success. If the team can avoid anymore long-term injuries or other outside factors that can quickly change the expectations of the squad, we should be in for another exciting basketball season. The stage is set, the actors all prepared. Let the drama begin.