Gopher basketball has been a surprising success through their first 11 games of the season. Nobody expected this team to be sitting at 10-1 with road wins over Michigan and Mississippi State as they get set to play 18 straight Big Ten games.
So we thought it was time to get some reaction to this surprisingly fun season and offer up some staff predictions for the rest of the season.
Surprising start to the season? Yes. Has it been fun? Also, yes. What has been your favorite moment of the season thus far?
Zips: My favorite specific moment was Luke Loewe’s put back against Pitt to basically win it at the buzzer. However, I think I had the most fun in general just watching the Miss State game because it was such an unexpected victory that I was hootin’ and hollerin’ and jumping around the living room.
GopherNation: For me it was the Michigan win. The game that was one of the least likely wins on the entire schedule and it wasn’t as though we were just hanging around for a chance to win it at the end. No, the Gophers controlled the entire game and extended the lead throughout the 2nd half. Was Michigan not exactly firing on all cylinders? No they were not, but some credit belongs to Minnesota in that road game. It was a the moment I went from thinking this has been a nice start that will fade to wondering if this team will remain competitive throughout the Big Ten season.
UStreet: The Michigan win was the qualitative shift in the first half of the season. To take a different tack, I was most amused at winning a game with a -22 turnover differential.
mowe0018: Probably Payton Willis going Dame Lillard on the Bulldogs in Starksville. The sheer lunacy of the circumstances considering where this team stood in the preseason along with the sheer fact that as soon as he released it, I thought it was going in, made it all the more enjoyable. And just about every time I look at the bench and all the players, despite knowing that they will see very few minutes seem fully engaged and onboard with the success of the team is what I have enjoyed the most about the start of the season.
Strategically speaking, what has Ben Johnson done that you have been most impressed with?
Zips: How many can I list? It’s clear that he has implemented a system on offense that keeps the ball moving and is predicated on smart passes and smart players. And I have to give him kudos for understanding that he has a small team and literally has abandoned the offensive rebound. I was skeptical at first but wow, it’s working. He also has a knack for drawing up plays out of timeouts that score points.
GopherNation: I appreciate much of the same as Zips. I love the offensive ball-movement that is leading to good shots. Amazing how taking open threes leads to making a higher percentage. I also love how they totally abandon offensive rebounding, but I think it is more about not giving up transition baskets than it is a factor of recognizing our lack of size. I think it is a recognition of our lack of athleticism.
Defensively this team really works well together but they also seem to execute a game-plan on that end of the floor. Look at how they collectively have limited opponent’s three-point shooting without getting completely decimated in the paint as a result.
UStreet: Figured out how to make Payton Willis a deadly three point shooter? More substantively, CBJ’s sideline and baseline out of bounds plays have been excellent so far this season. They have regularly led to good shots, either layups or threes.
mowe0018: Whatever CBJ has done to limit the number of turnovers and get guys to make shots has led to more “aesthetically pleasing” basketball. Despite a low assist-to-field-goals made ratio, when your team doesn’t cough up the ball a lot and they make shots, it makes the game appear far more clean and appealing to watch as a fan. These things could very well turn, but as my counterparts stated above, CBJ has done some things to cater strategy to the personnel available to make the most of the situation and skills of that personnel. Well done Coach.
The roster has been almost entirely overturned (we’ve covered this). Pick one player and tell me why either he’s been your favorite or you’ve been particularly impressed with what he has brought.
Zips: The easy answer is Jamison Battle but I keep finding myself drawn to Payton Willis’s game. He has matured so much since we last saw him and he is a legitimately good power conference guard now. His deep shot has improved considerably and you can tell he has a ton of trust in himself to not only take the big shot, but make it as well. He’s saved more than one game for the team already this year.
Also can we call out that Eric Curry is playing perhaps the best basketball of his career when the team needs him the most? He has been more than just a glue guy so far this season.
GopherNation: Eric Curry is the easy answer in my mind. And this is partly because I had incredibly low expectations coming into the season. When he tried to play last year, I felt like he was consistently a step slow and it looked as though his injuries had taken a toll. His announcement that he was returning did little for me and I thought he was going to be abused this year. But he has been solid on both ends of the floor. I don’t see him as a reason we are winning but he’s a huge reason we aren’t losing (if that makes sense).
UStreet: Sean Sutherlin’s attitude that no one stands between him and the basket has been fun to watch. Practically I had no expectations for him, but he has solidified the sixth man position and provides a different tempo for the team.
mowe0018: I’ve been enamored with two transfers: Luke Loewe and Eylijah Stephens. No one had any expectations for the white guy transfer from the Colonial Athletic Association being able to play up to a Big Ten standard. But he has consistently answered the bell by avoiding fouls, making the smart plays as displayed by his low turnover percentage, and being a sustainable starter on a team that is currently 10-1. Many of the same things could be said of Stephens so I will also give him a shoutout. The man is shooting 43% from three on decent volume. Take that Patriot League haters!!! Four year starters at mid-tier schools are generally battle tested players. This duo shows that.
A 10-1 start to the season has been great, but let’s not pretend like this is a Final Four team here. What areas have you the most concerned as we head into exclusively Big Ten play?
Zips: My biggest concern is durability of the team. Four guys are averaging 34 or more minutes per game, which feels unsustainable, and they are an injury away from this whole thing going off the rails. Beyond Sean Sutherlin, there isn’t much by way of productive minutes you can count on, so every game is an exercise in hoping no one gets hurt.
Second, they are 10-1 but have come through by the skin of their teeth in more than one game. Since they don’t have any size down low, they need to shoot to win, which can be pretty finicky game to game. As we saw against Michigan State, if they have an off day from the field they don’t have much of a backup plan. I’m steeling myself for some pretty ugly games along the way.
GopherNation: The interior concerns me terribly. We were able to get by in the non-conference without really facing a big man we should fear. Maybe the best non-con big man we faced was John Hugley of Pitt and he almost single-handedly won that game for the Panthers with 25 points and 14 rebounds. It’s not like things get soft in the paint in the Big Ten. Stopping the opposing big men concerns me greatly along with defensive rebounding, which is semi-related. If the Gophers get back to limiting teams to 1 shot with good defensive rebounding, they will have a shot in most games.
Also, like Zips, I’m very concerned about depth. We have a very slim margin for error. If someone gets injured or nights with foul trouble, we are in for a long night. The drop off in talent after the first 6 guys is significant.
UStreet: What y’all said. I’ll add that realistically the team only has two scorers who can consistently get their own shots. There’s a big difference between the teams that the Gophers have played in the non-conference and the best conference in college basketball. One of the big differences is that the defenses are going to get a lot better, and I am excited to see (though currently pessimistic) to see how Minnesota reacts to a major step up in defensive pressure.
mowe0018: It would be easy to say depth and an increase in opponent skill lever. However, I think both of those things are overrated. There have been numerous college teams that have succeeded with only playing 7 players. Did they have fortuitous injury luck? Sure. So why can’t we? It’s hard to predict injuries going forward so let’s throw them out. Additionally, I think the Big Ten isn’t as good as early season prognosticators would have you believe. I do think that any team can win a home game against any other (Rutgers vs Purdue anyone?), so on any given night, even the Gophers will have a chance against the conference’s elite. So my main concern would probably be a lack of size in the front court, if only because the Big Ten is notorious for physical games and has several of the premier front court players in the nation.
So we have 8 games in January, 8 games in February and then 2 regular season games in March. Tell me how things play out over the remaining 18 games and in to the Big Ten Tournament.
Zips: They have a hard Big Ten schedule, which I was okay with this season because I was thinking it’d be a throwaway. Now I’m not so accepting. I’m trying so hard not to adjust my expectations but I also know you don’t beat Miss State and Michigan on the road by accident, so it’s clear they should be taken seriously on any given night. I think they win their games against Nebraska, Rutgers, Penn State and probably Northwestern, with a couple other bonus wins thrown in there. We’ll see how they are looking in February after a full conference slate and 7-man rotation.
GopherNation: January will be ugly for this team. If they go 2-6 this month, I won’t be remotely surprised. Then February they have a chance to win 4 or 5 games. By then it may really depend on their level of confidence and health. Then 2 road games in March that really may be more winnable than they currently appear.
UStreet: I expect them to lose a lot of games. The lack of an interior presence and weak depth inside is going to be a major issue. As Zips said, the schedule is brutal. As I have said before, if this team sniffs .500 in conference play CBJ is coach of the year.
mowe0018: Based on early season returns, it appears that the range of possible outcomes has widen. If someone gets hurt for a prolonged period of time, say Jamison Battle goes down for the season, then it is completely possible the Gophers pull a Tubby/Pitino like nose dive during the latter part of the season. If health remains good, other Big Ten teams don’t performance up to expectations, and the team continues to gel at a high level, they could potentially get to 10-10 in the conference, which would also include an invitation to the most glorious dance in all the land.
Finally, what is the postseason fate of this team? Is this going to be an NIT team or do they have enough in them to be the most surprising NCAA Tournament team in memory?
Zips: As of today they definitely look like a team that belongs in the tournament. Given what we’ve seen so far I’d be disappointed if they missed out on the NIT and, honestly, I’d feel a bit letdown if they aren’t at least in the bubble conversation down the stretch. I’m not forgetting about where we thought we’d be this season, so I won’t fault them for not making the tournament, but given what they’ve already accomplished I feel like sneaking into the Big Dance should be in the conversation the rest of the way.
GopherNation: With my perpetual optimism glasses, I think they can get in. Realistically I think they admirably get themselves into the bubble conversation but eventually they fall short and are a good NIT team. For the NCAA Tournament they for sure need 6 more Big Ten wins, maybe 7. To get that, they have to beat all of the teams we now consider below them (Rutgers, Nebraska, Penn State x2, Northwestern x2). I’m not at the level of confidence where I think we win the games we are supposed to and then steal a couple more. I even think 5-1 in those games is being optimistic. Then you have to steal a couple more. Can they do it? Yes, and it isn’t a crazy scenario. But I think it’s unlikely. I’ll call 5 more Big Ten wins and then an NIT bid unless they go on a BTT run.
UStreet: I would not put money on this team to make the NCAA Tournament. Barring injury, I see a path to the NIT that looks like GopherNation’s.
mowe0018: Let’s pull the trigger on a little bit of crazy. They make the Dance. There’s always teams who end up greatly exceeding preseason expectations because college basketball can be highly volatile. At a time when most things don’t make logical sense, the Golden Gophers make the tournament relatively comfortably with a 10-10 Big Ten record and the shoes to a Ben Johnson statue outside of Williams Arena begin to manifest out of thin air before the ball is tipped in the Big Dance.