It is ALWAYS about expectations. Always. I don’t know how many, countless times I have typed that on these interwebs. Gopher football, for example, finished 7-6 making a bowl game and finishing the year with a win at Wisconsin. A 7-6 season for Ohio State would have been a disaster of a season while it would have been very exciting for Rutgers. Why? All because of expectations.
But back to basketball. This is the deepest and most balanced team that Richard Pitino has had during his tenure in Minnesota. It is very talented and there is every reason to believe that this team can compete with anybody. Last night’s win in Madison was significant for a number of reasons, most importantly that it is really tough to win on the road in the Big Ten. Getting a road win over a ranked opponent, it huge.
So what does this mean for the rest of the year and what should we expect? I’ll get to that in a moment. Some important thoughts on this team, really should help shape this discussion.
Deep and Balanced
This team is team and balanced, it may lack the star power of the 2016 team that earned itself a 5-seed before losing to Middle Tennessee State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. But it is talented throughout and can go 7 or 8 deep without a dropoff in production. While still having guys who can carry the scoring load like Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy.
So far this season it has been fun to watch how different guys step up and this team has found different ways to win. Early on Gabe Kalscheur was red hot in the first seven games of the year making 23 threes to the tune of 55%. The last seven games? He has made just 6 of 34 (17.6%). But when this freshman began to struggle, Daniel Oturu started to rack up double doubles. Coffey only manages 11 against Oklahoma State so Murphy scores 24. Dupree McBrayer struggles (for all the obvious reasons) against Nebraska, Coffey scores a season high 32.
The point is, this team is finding different ways to win with different contributions from different guys. It isn’t always pretty, but they are finding ways to win with a balanced lineup.
They’ve Yet to Put it Together
It also feels like this team has yet to put it all together. What happens when Kalschuer is shooting well and McBrayer is finding lanes to the rim while Coffey does his thing and Murphy/Oturu/Eric Curry dominate the boards?
Have I adequately raised your expectations yet?
The First 10 B1G Games
The schedule is rather friendly for the Gophers to start the Big Ten schedule. Three games are in the books with 2 wins coming against ranked teams for Minnesota. The next seven are mostly favorable. Getting the Madison road win was a big boost to what their record “could” be through the first half of the Big Ten schedule.
An 8-2 start to the Big Ten is entirely possible. Even if they drop a game they “should” win, that’s still a 7-3 start. The obvious caveat that the Big Ten is really tough. Being favored to beat Maryland at home or Illinois on the road is one thing, actually doing it is another.
But in the next 7 games the Gophers are home for 5 of those. The two road games are Illinois (likely win) and Michigan (very likely loss). The 5 home opponents are Maryland, Rutgers, Penn State, Iowa and Illinois.
Like I said, an 8-2 start to the Big Ten is entirely possible.
The Next Ten Tho
Then things get challenging. Here is where I try to temper expectations. If there is an 8-2 start to the conference, this is when people start putting Minnesota in the conversation about winning the league or finishing in the top 3. But that’s why you play all 20 league games.
The final 10 games has only 4 at home. And all four of those are going to be against very good teams. Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Purdue are your home opponents. And the road games? Purdue, Michigan State, Nebraska, Rutgers, Northwestern and Maryland.
I think that 4-6 down the stretch is somewhere between optimistic and realistic.
The optimist in me thinks that this team could use a strong start to gain the confidence it will need to head into the final 10 games of the year. The realist says that there are likely only 3 wins in this final 10.
What About the Postseason?
This is really what matters, right?
I think that my baseline expectation for this team is a 10-10 Big Ten record. A 7-3 start with a 3-7 finish is entirely possible. Can that turn to 12-8 real quick? yes it can...so can 9-11. But I think they’ll have 10 or 11 Big Ten wins.
That, should be enough to get into the NCAA Tournament. That is my ultimate expectation for this team. The back half of the schedule is going to be really tough, and that really should not be forgotten (but it will be when we slide in February).
This team is fun to watch and maybe they begin to put it all together to be a dangerous team, come March.
My thoughts are NCAA Tournament or bust, but don’t fret too much if there’s a bit of a slide into the invitation. The Big Ten is brutal.