While going through the sports news rounds this morning, I feverishly navigated across the world wide web to a spot I had long been familiar with. It had been a place of horrors and jubilation. There had been much hair-pulling from this page in the past as well as much roof-raising. To paraphrase Charles Dickens -- because I know he’d appreciate his well-crafted, famous opening paragraph that has become a pinnacle of every American high schooler’s curriculum to be ripped off by some half-rate blogger’s introduction about his favorite basketball team — this particular web feature I was digitally sprinting towards had provided the best of times and the worst of times in the last 10 years.
I speak, of course, about ESPN Bubble Watch.
Sure, there are other Bubble Watch articles, like at Sports Illustrated and other sports media outlets. But the one at ESPN has been the foundation of my own personal March Madness for over a decade. It held the key to whether Minnesota was dancing with fervor or hearing those dreaded three letters that no major college basketball program wants to hear on the second weekend of March: N-I-T.
As a swiftly scrolled past Eamonn Brennan’s introduction (sorry, buddy no time for pointless yapping), I could hardly contain my anticipation within the confines of my work cubicle.
Suddenly, the screen had reached the only conference that matters: the Big Ten.
The feeling of euphoria after seeing the above on my screen could only be compared to what Harry Potter must have felt the first time he had taken a swig of Felix Felicis. Suddenly, I was floating above my cubicle as if my body had taken the shape of a flying unicorn. The drab cube farm had become a pasture full of puppies and rainbows. Colors were brighter. Everything smelled like freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Heck, I couldn’t even hear the endless cacophony of hacking and coughing from the guy who just HAD to come to work with a terrible cold two cubes down that had been a persistent audio hammer to my head for a good chuck of the last two weeks.
THE MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS WERE A LOCK FOR THE NCAA TOURNAMENT!
Not only were they listed in the lock column of ESPN Bubble Watch for the first time in it’s existence; they had done so before the calendar had even hit March! What a time to be alive!
That beautiful maroon and gold ‘M’ so regally standing in the lock column, with the additional perk of being first alphabetically and, therefore, seemingly standing atop Purdue and Wisconsin, made me begin to think: is this the best Minnesota men’s basketball team of the current NCAA basketball era?
Without just jumping to the conclusion of, “YES, OF COURSE! WE’RE AMAZING AND WE’LL NEVER LOSE ANOTHER GAME EVER AGAIN!!!!!!!!!!!” I started to do some research. And keep in mind that when I say, “the current NCAA basketball era,” I am referring to the time when Ken Pomeroy starting tracking efficiency statistics for all Division I men’s basketball teams. This time also coincides with the beginnings of the internet recruiting era and is around the time that players were no longer allowed to go straight to the NBA from high school, creating a new influx of temporary talent on college campuses across the country. They don’t perfectly match up but components definitely reflect this new age of college basketball where the 2001-2002 season is the first year in this this particular exercise.
Now, this comparison won’t be perfect, because every season has had its different circumstances and external factors that have a direct impact on the performance of the team on the court. But the below chart was my best effort at taking a few metrics and numbers to give us a broad comparison of the Minnesota men’s basketball teams since the 2001-2002 season.
(NOTE: Gold denotes best, silver second best, and bronze third best in each particular column and the 2017 stats are as of 2/24/2017 at 9:45 AM)
First, since this particular post is full of optimism and cheeriness, let’s get the negative out of the way: there isn’t much here to be super proud of in comparison to a majority of major conference programs over the last 16 years. Just thought I would preface with this because we are comparing this year’s team with a lot of rotten and/or mediocre apples.
Alright, now that that is out of the way, look at this team compared to the rest! It currently holds the best record, RPI, and conference ranking. It holds the second highest conference record (though this could very easily surpass 2005 for first in the coming days), KenPom rating, and College Basketball Reference SRS. Lastly, it holds the third best RPI SOS.
Even a cursory glance at the crowded chart above leaves you with only two plausible options for best Gophers’ basketball team of the last 16 iterations. This year’s squad and Tubby Smith’s final season at the helm, the 2012-2013 season.
That 2013 team reached as high as 8th in the AP Poll and had, at one point, a record of 15-1 (3-0). Unfortunately, as Tubby’s teams so often did, they faded down the stretch under the weight of an absolute bear of a conference schedule. There was a span during that season where Minnesota played top 12 KenPom teams in 8 out of 15 games. That’s insane. Their KenPom and RPI SOSs agreed that those Gophers played one of the nation’s toughest schedules. And while that helped them make the NCAA Tournament with a losing conference record (8-10), it didn’t help them get to the second weekend or save Smith’s job. In a final twist of irony, the Gophers were dealt a brutal second round matchup against a 3-seeded Florida team that was under-seeded, as, according to KenPom, they were the 2nd most efficient team in the country.
Every other team doesn’t really hold a candle across the board. Coach Pitino’s first year on campus in 2014 yielded the most wins in a season in Minnesota history (if you don’t count the “seasons that must not be named”) but five of those wins came in the NIT. While winning that tournament was a fun ride, it didn’t really mean anything beyond the Gophers being a quality middle-of-the-road team.
Plus, factor in that this year’s squad is still capable of overtaking better placement in several of these categories including conference record, SRS, Big Ten Tournament finish, and additional post season statistics and it’s hard to imagine objectively stating that any team besides the one we are currently enjoying is the best Gopher team in recent memory.
This group of players is having the best season the Barn has seen in quite some time. It’s been 20 years since the Gophers made national headlines and a deep run in March. While that season was later vacated, the memories remain. But this team, especially during the current six-game winning streak, seems to be on track to create some new Gopher basketball memories. Coach Pitino has engineered an unbelievable turn around in just a years’ time. On the shoulders of key transfers Reggie Lynch and Akeem Springs, improved play from his own recruits in Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer, and Nate Mason, and the infusion of uber-talented freshman and local kid Amir Coffey, this squad has lifted Minnesota from Big Ten laughing stock to a possible double bye in the conference tournament to be held in Washington DC in just less than two weeks.
So to answer my own question: yes. This team is the best Gopher team since Ken Pomeroy decided to start tracking efficiency. So don’t look to the promise of the future. Don’t look to the memories of the past. Enjoy the now. The Gophers are a lock for the NCAA Tournament. They are playing their best basketball of the season towards the end rather the beginning. And it isn’t outside the realm of rational thought to believe they could be a factor into the second weekend of March Madness.
What a time to be alive!