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Minnesota Basketball: The Big Ten check-in and where do the Gophers fit?

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With an unexpected break, how do the Gophers fit in the Big Ten landscape?

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Minnesota Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

With tonight’s game at Penn State getting postponed it and the Big Ten schedule basically 13 completed, it seemed like a good time to step back and take a look at the conference and where the Gophers fit.

Before the season began the Gophers were a unanimous choice to finish last in the conference. Considering they were breaking in a brand new coach, not just to Minnesota but new to being a head coach, and they were essentially replacing their entire roster with a hodge-podge of mid-major transfers; this was no surprise. As people would ask me how I thought they would do this season, I told people to be prepared for what may be the worst Gopher team of our lifetime.

Turns out the Big Ten media and myself were very wrong. The Gophers have been surprisingly competitive in most games and stealing a nice road win over Michigan in December.

The question is, where do they fit into the overall Big Ten picture? And after their brutal start to the conference season, how well can they finish?

First I wanted to begin with a look at just how much better this team is than originally projected and how have they improved?

You can see by this graphic that is plotting their KenPom ranking from the beginning of the season to what their ranking was at coming into their most recent home game.

The Gophers began the season ranked 119th and were up to 84th heading into the Iowa game. Easily showing the biggest improvement from early season to today.

A couple of interesting notes here though. First, I also highlighted Nebraska and Maryland, both teams who have severely underperformed expectations this year. Rutgers also quickly dropped in rankings before holding pretty steady ranked in the 90-100 range after starting out 67th.

Secondly, there is a pretty clear gap between the top 8 teams and the next 7. Those top 8 teams are all ranked in the top 30. Then you see the bottom 6 that fall somewhere between 54th (Northwestern) and 159th.

As has been noted, the Gophers have had a very difficult first 6 games of their season, facing only teams in that top group of 8 so far. Helping to explain their 1-5 record.

Looking now at how these teams fall in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency, this clear line between the top 8 and the next 6 is noticeable.

What does this mean? First, the Gophers have clearly surpassed expectations this year and have played admirably to start the season. Secondly, their next 14 games are going to be interesting when you consider that they half of their remaining games against this latter 6 teams in the league.

And thirdly, their margin for error is extremely thin. They’ve managed to get by with a 7 or 8 man rotation and even put forth a gutty effort against Iowa missing 2 of their rotation. But to start accumulating some Big Ten wins, they are going to need a healthy roster. The good news is that the current rash of Covid cases aligns nicely with the timing of Eric Curry’s ankle injury, allowing him more time to heal and be 100% when games resume.

Also fortuitous is that freshman Treyton Thompson was forced to play some meaningful minutes against Iowa and looked good. This may be moment he earned himself more playing time and gives the Gophers more depth in the frontcourt.

There is reason to believe that the Gopher’s current losing streak will be coming to an end and there are plenty of opportunities out there for some wins.

Hosting Rutgers this weekend should be a good test against a team that plays good defense but has severely struggled on the road.