Minnesota Prepares for Big Ten Gauntlet

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The Golden Gophers have had an interesting season entering one of the hardest four game stretches in college basketball this season. Can they shock a heavy favorite along the way to pick up a marquee victory?

Coming into the 2013-2014 season, it was always going to be difficult to project what the Minnesota Golden Gophers might accomplish. They had lost two great rebounders in Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams which allowed them to lead the nation in offensive rebounding. They had fired a National Championship winning coach in Tubby Smith. And they had, rather than sign freshman, acquired three junior college transfers who hadn't played high level Division I basketball. Considering the circumstances, young coach Rich Pitino and the Gophers have to be pleased with their performance so far this season. But the young head coach and his team is about to enter a stretch of games against four of the best teams, not just in the conference, but in the country.

With no egregious losses on their resume and solid RPI-building (whatever that's worth) wins against Florida State and Richmond (true road win), the Golden Gophers may be able to afford a .500 conference record and still make the NCAA Tournament. While this upcoming stretch of opponents will most certainly skyrocket their SOS into the stratosphere, Minnesota may very well go 0-4 during this blood bath of games. Here is a quick overview of the upcoming string of games. Gophers, we hardly knew ye!

AP Rank USA Today Rank RPI Sagarin KenPom Average Rank
Matchup Offense Defense Overall
at Michigan State 5 4 10 5 28 10 9 6.6
vs Ohio State 3 3 8 2 55 1 1 3.4
at Iowa 20 23 25 8 19 17 13 17.8
vs Wisconsin 4 4 1 4 4 15 3 3.2

Minnesota will face three of the top five teams in three of their games and sandwiched in there for good measure is one of the most balanced teams in the nation, according to KenPom. The Iowa Hawkeyes both defend very well and are incredibly efficient on the defensive end along with their tendency to push tempo. With two of the games taking place away from the Barn, the Gophers still have two chances at home to pull an upset and collect an impressive building block to their currently average tournament resume.

While the Ohio State Buckeyes play a suffocating defense, it's no secret that they are times when they are looking for someone to take the reigns and score. The Gophers may be able to capitalize on poor shooting and a raucous crowd at the Barn to spring an upset.

The last game of the quartet of doom, a home date with Wisconsin, could also be an intriguing proposal for the Golden Gophers. Before playing in the Twin Cities, Wisconsin has an away date with the Indiana Hoosiers and a home game against the Michigan Wolverines. It is well within the realm of possibility the Badgers come into the Barn 20-0 and ranked in the top three in the country. Minnesota hasn't lost a game to the Badgers by more than 9 points since 2008 and have sprinkled in a few wins as well. Two of the last four contests between these teams have gone into overtime. Don't be surprised if the score is close again.

Coach Pitino would probably be pleased with getting through this stretch of games without being blown out. But the Gophers haven't backed down from stiff competition this season. They took Syracuse, currently ranked #2 in the AP Poll, down to the wire in Maui, and had Michigan on the ropes at home for a majority of the contest, only to buckle late. No moment has seemed quite too big for this team yet. But it's still safe to predict they might go 0-4 during this portion of the schedule. And it would appear Pitino might be ok with that, as long as the players are showing improvement on his pressing concepts, crashing the defensive boards, and doing a better job of limiting turnovers.

While a win seems unlikely, it's still possible. And if the Golden Gophers can get hot shooting nights from Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, they might just sneak one or two out against one of these elite teams. Then they'll not only have a well-improved SOS for their NCAA Tournament resume, they'll have wins few teams will be able to claim come tournament bubble time.

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