After two straight horrible seasons under coach Richard Pitino, it finally looks like the Minnesota Golden Gophers men's basketball team is ready to compete with the best teams in the Big Ten Conference. While the Golden Gophers had a rough time with the Florida State Seminoles, Minnesota proved their resiliency by coming back with key wins over Vanderbilt on Saturday and NJIT on Tuesday. The great win over NJIT gives the Golden Gophers the same amount of wins they had all of last season, and it proved that this team has the talent to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers padded their win total early in the season by playing inferior teams, but the schedule has gotten a lot harder in the last two weeks. Florida State is one of the best teams in the tough ACC, so it was nice to see Minnesota give them a competitive game on the road. The Golden Gophers had the lead at halftime, so it is hard to fault their effort against the Seminoles. The only thing that kept them from leaving Tallahassee with a win was poor shooting. Backup guard Akeem Springs was the only player on the team that shot better than 50 percent from the field against the Seminoles. Most of the poor shooting can be attributed to the tough defense of Florida State, but it may be something the Minnesota coaching staff needs to address if it continues in the future.
While the Golden Gophers did not have their best offensive performance against Vanderbilt, they played much better defense than they did against Florida State. The great defensive effort turned out to be the difference in the game. The Commodores only made 30.2 percent of their shots from the field as the Golden Gophers went on to win 56-52. If Minnesota can maintain the defensive pressure they showed against Vanderbilt, then they will be able to beat good teams even if they struggle on offense.
The win against Vanderbilt is even more impressive when you consider that they were down 12 points early in the first half. It was also the first time the Golden Gophers won a game this season away from their home fans. Vanderbilt may not have the talent as some of the top teams in the Big Ten, but coming back from a huge deficit is always impressive for a young basketball team. Winning close games on the road is one of the biggest factors in determining a successful college basketball team, so the Vanderbilt win was a major hurdle for the Minnesota Golden Gophers to overcome.
Their next game against NJIT on Wednesday was supposed to be a breeze for Minnesota. The Golden Gophers went into the game as 18 point favorites, but the game came down to the wire and they eventually pulled ahead to win 74-68. Coach Pitino is very optimistic about this performance, calling it a wake-up call for his team. It is also important to note that he went to his bench very early in the game, which kept the game closer than it should have been.
Akeem Springs, who scored a game-high 19 points, was open by saying “I didn’t feel like my team was playing to the best of their ability.”
The fact that Minnesota can play poorly and find a way to win is a fantastic sign for them.
They may not finish at the top of the Big Ten at the end of the year, but their recent performances proved that Minnesota is in for a more successful season than anticipated. That is all the fans, players and coaching staff can hope for after the disastrous season last year.