At around 9:02 PM CST on December 9th, 2019 the Minnesota Golden Gophers had just been destroyed by the Iowa Hawkeyes at Carver-Hawkeye Arena by a score of 72-52. The following are a brief sampling of Gopher fans’ thoughts following the performance:
Looking like a disaster season... I struggle to see us getting to double digit wins on the season.
I think the football team might have more wins than these guys by the end of the season...
...I’m seeing this team as winning 5 or 6 in the Big Ten season.
Need to start calling it what it is... this is a bad basketball team... Again this is a poor team in all phases of the game.
Essentially, there was a lot of unrest and disappointment with how the season appeared to be headed. But then, a funny thing happened on the way to the Barn. Fast-forward six weeks and the previously lackluster Gophers are 5-4 in Big Ten play, with four Quad 1 wins in a year where the conference is more balanced than it has ever been in the KenPom era (2002-). They stand at 11-8 overall having just notched their first true road victory of the season and are currently projected to be the very last team in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. On top of this, one of their two most important players, sophomore point guard Marcus Carr, just ripped the hearts out of the previously ranked 2nd-in-the-country Ohio State Buckeyes for the second time this season with a 21-point performance in Columbus, capped by an ice-in-his-veins game-winning three-pointer. Needless to say, the season’s complexion has changed drastically since that dreary December evening in Iowa City.
And thus life on the bubble and a grueling, but rewarding, Big Ten schedule have created what is sure to be a wild roller coaster ride of a final six weeks of the college basketball regular season for Minnesota fans.
Despite the departure of standout wing Amir Coffey and all-time Gopher great Jordan Murphy at the end of the 2018-2019 season, there was reason to believe the 2019-2020 edition of the squad would be a competitive team with an infusion of talented transfers in Carr and junior guard Peyton Willis and the continual evolution of sophomores Daniel Oturu, Gabe Kalscheur, and Jarvis Omersa. And while the team’s overall record may seem pedestrian, Coach Richard Pitino’s crew holds several key cards in its proverbial hand when it comes to securing a birth in the NCAA Tournament.
First, regardless of which metric you examine, the Gophers have played an extremely challenging schedule, a fact which is not changing in the coming weeks based on the play of future opponents. KenPom, the NET, ESPN’s BPI, and the old RPI currently have Minnesota’s schedule ranked as the 2nd, 30th, 5th, and 21st hardest schedule in the country, respectively. The road ahead might only get harder considering away games at Illinois, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Indiana and home contests against Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, and Maryland (all top-40 teams in KenPom) still remain. Strength of schedule continues to be an aspect of a team’s resume the committee considered important so the Gophers’ incredibly difficult slate will not only look good on their resume but will afford them ample opportunities to garner more high-quality wins.
Second, the aforementioned Carr has re-acclimated to live-game action, embedded himself as a Big Ten standout, and become what every college basketball team craves: a point guard who is both the floor general of the team and a capable scorer. After a rocky start to the season, Marcus has become a statistical monster the likes of which Guillermo del Toro dare not dream. He ranks 4th in assist rate in the Big Ten, 3rd in free throw rate, 9th in free throw percentage, 10th in three-point percentage, and most shockingly (and dangerously) 1st in percent of team minutes played (all per KenPom). The importance of a high-quality point guard in the college game cannot be overstated and with Carr finding his footing and upping his game, the Gophers have become a team to be reckoned with on any given night in the Big Ten.
Third, Oturu has taken the fabled “sophomore leap” with such convincing enthusiasm, it would appear that, to quote basketball’s GOAT, “The ceiling is the roof!” He currently ranks 8th in the entire country in KenPom’s “Player of the Year” metric which is, “designed to identify the most valuable player in the game, free of reputation, future potential, or amount of times the player appears on Big Monday,” (KenPom). It would take a while to list the slew of statistics he ranks highly in so just know that Daniel currently ranks 2nd in the Big Ten and 12th in the entire NCAA in player efficiency rating (PER). There have been several times during the stretch of improved play for the team where Oturu has carried a huge burden on both sides of the floor and done so with great success and aplomb.
On top of these positive developments, Minnesota has improved this season all while Willis has been nursing an ankle injury which has noticeably hampered his performance and Kalscheur has been a shell of his freshman sharp-shooting self. Just imagine if those two can become both healthy and whole again what this team might be capable of doing. Toss in the fact that freshmen Tre’ Williams and Isaiah Ihnen are still learning what it takes to play in the Big Ten but slowly contributing more and more when called upon and one can easily see room for team improve still possible this season.
On top of this room for more potential growth, the college basketball landscape seems to be quite confusing, complicated, and ripe for an absolutely bonkers March. Seven teams have been ranked #1 this year in the AP Poll, the first time that has happened since 1983. Of the current top three ranked teams in the KenPom, two of them have lost to opponents that the Gophers have defeated (Gonzaga vs. Michigan, Duke vs. Clemson) This means that even the teams that barely just make the Big Dance might have an exciting tournament run in them. And this is where I might, “jump the shark” just a little bit but bare with me dear reader...
Considering Minnesota has both an impact, scoring point guard and a dominant force in the middle and the potential for quality three-point shooting from several sources (Kalscheur, Willis, Alihan Demir), they just might have the perfect combination of elements for a surprise second weekend run that Gopher fans have thirsted for for over two decades.
However, despite all the positive vibes that currently exist, there’s a reason that this season is considered a bit of a roller coaster. Much like the Fellowship that departed Rivendell to destroy the One Ring, to quote Galadriel of Lothlórien, Minnesota’s, “quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stay but a little, and it will fail, to the ruin of all.” That is to say, due to the extreme lack of depth of this intriguing squad, one semi-serious injury to any of Oturu, Carr, or Kalscheur and the season probably goes down the tubes. One game of foul trouble for one of the main contributors and upsets are possible. The margin of error is going to be so slim that free throws will become of utmost importance. Fortunately, after a strangely atrocious start, this has corrected itself and the Gophers stand at a very respectable 71.4% as a team from the charity stripe. But the possibly remains of falling off the edge of that proverbial knife...
I honestly can’t explain it but there’s just something about this squad that makes me believe the best is yet to come. The win in Columbus the other day was the first time they won there since 2005. Now the team has the “no road wins” monkey off of its back. The Gophers haven’t had a player in KenPom’s POY rankings this late in the season in the ranking’s existence. Oturu stands at 8th even after one of his least productive games of the conference slate thus far. And lastly, the room for improvement is so evident in the lackluster play of Kalscheur, the healing process of Willis, and the possible growth of Omersa and the freshmen contributors that the best could very well be yet to come.
All I know is this: the Big Ten is a bear this year, with 12 of its 14 teams in KenPom’s top 40 and 11 of its teams currently projected to make the Big Dance. The Gophers have stood in the face of this daunting task and haven’t faltered. Sure there have been set backs. They were run out of the gym in East Lansing. They have gone 0-16 from the three-point line during a stretch of game play. They lost three of their first four games. But they are still standing and still playing with intensity.
The 2019-2020 season has had its ups and downs so far. But after Carr calmly knocked down his game-winner in Columbus, it would seem that the roller coaster ride is just beginning.