Listen, I love the sports statistic revolution as much as the next huge sports fan. The ways people are looking at basketball these days are fascinating. Tempo-free stats, true shooting percentages, efficiency ratings of any kind; they all great and fine. But somethings you just have to look past the numbers and have a frank discussion about a team. Well, that time has come. During a period 28 days in December, the Gophers will have played 4 games. Four games against the likes of the University of New Orleans, a school a few months away from devolving into a Division II institution, South Dakota State, after a Nate Wolters graduation ceremony, the University of Nebraska-Omaha, who just became a Division I school, and last but not least, something called Texas A&M University- Corpus Cristi. Let's just say the post-Maui schedule hasn't and won't be much of a gauntlet or a help to the old RPI.
But, like I said before, let's throw out the numbers and look at results. Besides a befuddle two halves of basketball in Maui (the second half of the Arkansas game and the first half of the Chaminade game) the Gophers seemed to have adapted to the new coach and new system with great enthusiasm and tenacity. While no one will evern confuse the 2013-2014 Minnesota Golden Gophers with the 1992-1993 Arkansas Razorbacks, they have done quite well with personnel that really doesn't fit Richard Pitino's up-tempo style of play.
I'm here today though, not to make excuse for Pitino. Before the season started, I honestly thought that the Hollins' boys were actually good enough to make this team without a true power forward a contender for a final spot in the NCAA Tournament. And from what I've seen from the Gophers and other B1G squads throughout the first two months of the season, I see no reason to deviate from that prediction. Minnesota was one turnover away from tying and/or beating the team that is currently ranked #2 in the country and is notorious for having a ton of size in the front court. That is supposedly the Gophers' biggest weakness. If they can compete in that game against those athletes, there is no reason to believe they can't hang tough with some of the B1G's best.
Now, I'm not saying that the Gophers will compete for a B1G title, but from just watching games and recognizing the short comings in the roster throw observation and not crunching the numbers, it's not implausible to think these Gophers couldn't pull a few upsets in the B1G and start to build a resume of a bubble team. This especially holds true if Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins continue to accept their roles as go-to guys on the team and start to attempt to dominate certain aspects of the game more. Since I said I was going to stay away from numerical and statistical analysis, I won't rattle off Austin's impressive per 40 minute stat line to you or bore you with Andre's shooting numbers (which, frankly, could actually be much better) because all you need to know is for this team to truly succeed, these two need to continue to step up in big ways.
A lot of people on the interwebs are talking about how great of a job Pitino has done in his first eleven games or so because he inherited a team with no front court talent and very little to work with but I think that's selling some of the guys on the team short. Anyone who has watched Deandre Mathieu play point guard knows he can compete at a B1G level. While flawed, Eliott Eliason can rebound the ball at a decent clip and provide solid interior defense. And we have still never really seen Mo Walker realize his full potential. He has played in only 5 games this season due to suspension and has never been fully healthy his other two years at college. I have a feeling that come the middle of the conference season, a light may go on for Mo and he could become an impressive presence around the basket.
Listen, I know the team is flawed. They got blown away by a mediocre Arkansas team at Maui and have struggled at times against the likes of New Orleans and Coastal Carolina, but there are times in the early non-conference schedule when ennui can set in without even realizing it. Hopefully, all the talk about the team really buying into what Pitino is selling is true so that games like that don't occur once the calendar turns.
I guess what I'm trying to say is I think a lot of people have undersold this team to the point to where the coach is now getting all the credit for any modest amount of success the Gophers have this year. Tubby Smith didn't leave the cupboard bare. I still say I would take the back court of Minnesota's over most in the B1G. And the bigs are still learning their roles in the new system and getting acclimated to the changes. Minnesota has a chance to surprise people in the conference this year. Nebraska and Northwestern are still looking like probable bottom feeders, Michigan and Iowa, while loaded with talent, are struggling to win the big games, Illinois and Purdue are respectable squads but nonetheless beatable, and even the top of the conference has shown a bit of vulnerability if they are having an off night.
Without looking at the numbers, the Gophers sit at 9-2 with a respectable loss, an ok loss, and one decent win. Going into a B1G schedule loaded with challenging games, both home and away, it's easy to dismiss them as a also-ran in the grand scheme of things. But I have a feeling that the Gophers may surprise some people when the calendar turns to February and March. After all, KenPom does rank them 39th in the country...