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Minnesota Basketball: Checking in on Gopher hoops expectations

After 3 straight wins, where is this Gopher team heading?

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

It is truly hard to believe that this Gopher basketball team is the same program that finished 2-17 in the Big Ten last year, 9-22 overall. There are reasons for cautious optimism for the 2023-24 season, but this team has been truly fun to watch and playing at what most people assumed would be their ceiling for this season.

Dare I say that this team has renewed the love of Gopher hoops that may have been on life support in late February of 2023. So I’d like to first thank Ben Johnson, his staff and the players for making Gopher basketball fun again.

When discussing the expectations for this season, here is what I suggested was the team’s ceiling.

I think the ceiling on this team is to be a bubble team that sneaks in. But really that means everything has to go right. No injuries, a team that is cohesive and plays great together, a team that plays better defense and makes a dramatic leap in shooting percentage (from three and from the free throw line).

It’s possible. I’ve been saying since January that this year’s team will be markedly better. But it’ll look more like six or seven Big Ten wins and an NIT bid.

And feel free to go back to our TDG roundtable and see what the three of us basketball guys had for season expectations. By that point I had tempered my own expectations to thinking 8 conference wins was the ceiling, more likely to be 6. Well they already have 6, with 9 more games to go!

But now I’m greedy, perhaps I’m a little entitled and I want that NCAA Tournament bid. Is this actually possible?

Before we get to that I want to check in on this team and see if we can understand why they are better. How has this team gone from being unwatchable and a game for Big Ten opponents where they really did just have to show up to get a win?

I’ll give you three significant reasons that they are so drastically improved.

First, they have more depth and significantly improved point guard play. Elijah Hawkins has been a huge addition for this program. The lightning quick guard leads the nation in assists per game and is also shooting over 34% from three and hitting some big shots throughout the season. He’s been great, even with the turnovers that come with his frenetic pace. But Ben Johnson also brought in Mike Mitchell Jr and freshman, Cam Christie who are capable of providing valuable and capable minutes at the point behind Hawkins.

Secondly, this team is SO MUCH MORE efficient on both ends of the floor.

Offensive Efficiency - 102.4 (235th nationally)
Defensive Efficiency - 105.6 (188th)

Offensive Efficiency - 110.0 (100th)
Defensive Efficiency - 98.9 (49th)

Those kind of improvements are incredible and indicative of a total team effort. Last year they gave up more points per possession than they scored. This year they’ve flipped that significantly. This is a combination of player improvement and coaching. Clearly this team is playing much better overall defense and they are more efficient on offense.

I could pull up several different stats to show improvement, but these efficiency numbers are really the result of better rebounding, higher shooting percentages and fewer turnovers. (not to mention actually making free throws this year).

Lastly, this team has some toughness to it. I posed the question before the season started about what is this team’s identity. Last year’s squad floundered on both ends. I’m still not sure what words I would used to describe this team’s specific offensive or defensive identity, but this team plays with toughness.

Ben Johnson, at his opening press conference, said he wanted “dudes” to play in his program. He wanted players that other people saw and recognized that they are the type of guys who would be a part of this program. And I think he’s starting to get there.

So now the question is...can they make the NCAA Tournament? A question that was laughable 12 months ago (maybe even 4 months ago), but the Gophers are starting to put themselves into the conversation.

The short answer here is that it is very unlikely.

This team put together what was the weakest non-conference schedule in the country. It ranks 362nd out of 362 Division I teams. This was presumably purposeful after having such a tough season a year ago, this team needed an opportunity to grow and develop some confidence. The non-conference schedule was not put together from the stand point of trying to build an NCAA Tournament resume.

They mostly handled their business, losing only to Missouri and San Francisco. The Mizz game turned out to be a truly bad loss and one that very well may keep them out of the tourney conversation altogether.

But then the Big Ten season happened and the Gophers are sitting alone in 5th place in the conference with wins over Michigan State and Northwestern, and a 2-3 road record. So what will it take to get their name called on Selection Sunday?

Here comes the longer answer.

I discussed this in January and things remain largely the same. There have been 7 times that a Big Ten team has had an 11-9 record in conference. Six of those 7 teams made it in, the one that didn’t was Michigan 2023 and it was largely due to their 2-12 record in Quad 1 games. Ten out of 12 times a team with a 10-10 or 11-9 record have made it.

So typically if you get to 10 or 11 Big Ten wins, you have a very good chance of getting in. The Gophers, with their incredibly weak non-conference schedule have zero chance of getting in with 10 Big Ten wins and 11 is still unlikely.

I think 11 Big Ten wins gets them into the Bubble conversation where they fall short, unless they manage 2 wins in the Big Ten Tournament. That’s the scenario for an 11-conference wins team.

Now, if they get to 12 wins, then things start to look differently. So how can they get 6 more Big Ten wins in their final 9 games? Again...this is going to be a challenge.

The Next Two

These are unlikely wins. Up next is a trip to Iowa and a trip to Purdue. The Hawkeyes are a much better team at home than they are on the road and we really struggled to defend their highly efficient offense. Purdue is one of the teams in contention for a national championship. While I believe that we match up well with Purdue, this game in East Lafayette is not a likely win for the Gophers.

So let’s assume 0-2 on this little road trip. Steal a win in one of these two games and things start to look much better.

The Final Seven

Then we get to the final seven games of the season where most of them are winnable games (also losable, we are not exactly in position to be overconfident against anybody). This is when things could get interesting, but we have to remember that we would likely have to go 6-1 in these games. And that would be really difficult.

  • Rutgers (H) - struggling at 4-7 in conference and currently ranked 95th in KenPom rankings
  • Ohio State (H) - they have lost 8 of their last 9 Big Ten games with multiple double-digit losses
  • Nebraska (A) - we earned a win over the Huskers already but a different story on the road, this one is KEY
  • Illinois (A) - a potential Final Four team, on the road, this is a loss
  • Penn State (H) - we should be favored
  • Indiana (H) - we should be favored
  • Northwestern (A) - I’m not terribly impressed with Northwestern but it won’t be an easy win. This, along with that Nebraska road game, is key.

Four very winnable home games and then they would have to go 2-1 on the road in this scenario. The end of season schedule is much more favorable.

What is going to happen is that this team is going to continue to play with toughness, give us great entertainment for the next 9 regular season games and then likely end up in the NIT.

Earning an NCAA Tournament bid is possible, though it feels a bit out of reach in 2024. But frankly, this season has been a huge step forward and a breath of fresh air.