Minnesota (23-7, 11-6 in Big Ten) has won eight straight games and is carrying more momentum than any team into the Big Ten Tournament. The Gophers jumped ahead of Maryland in the standings with the win, and with a regular-season finale against Wisconsin Sunday, things could get really interesting behind Purdue atop the Big Ten.
Nebraska hung with Minnesota for a while Thursday. The Gophers led 26-25 with five minutes to go before closing the half on a 15-2 run. The Gophers handled the struggling Huskers behind a 56-percent shooting night.
Though a win over Nebraska won’t stand out come season’s end, the Gophers are a team to pay attention to.
What We learned:
1. The Big Ten Coach of the Year isn’t a given.
Purdue’s win over Indiana earlier this week clinched the Boilermakers at least a share of the Big Ten title. The Boilers have been arguably the most consistent team in the conference this season, and Matt Painter has turned Caleb Swanigan into a strong candidate for National Player of the Year.
But a Big Ten title doesn’t necessarily solidify Painter as the conference’s top coach, and Richard Pitino’s should certainly put pressure on Painter for the honor.
Minnesota went 8-23 a year ago and just 2-16 in the conference, finishing second to last ahead of Rutgers.
The Gophers lost six players from last year’s team due to graduation or suspension, and the season was marred by the late-season suspensions of Kevin Dorsey, Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer for posting a sexually explicit video online.
But Minnesota opened the current season 12-1 in nonconference play before a 3-1 start to the Big Ten season — including a win over Purdue and just a 1-point loss against Michigan State.
The Gophers followed with a five-game losing streak but quickly turned it back around to begin the streak they’re still riding today. A second-place finish in conference would be the icing on the cake for the 180-degree turnaround of the program.
Purdue has been solid, but Pitino turned the Gophers from a dysfunctional bottom-dweller to one of the best teams in the Big Ten.
2. Nate Mason is flying under the radar.
Mason’s 2015-16 season didn’t end well as one of the three suspended players mentioned above.
But he’s been the catalyst to Minnesota’s turnaround as the team’s starting point guard and leading scorer. The junior averages 15.1 points per game, 3.6 rebounds and 5.3 assists — with an assist/turnover ratio of almost 3. All those numbers are up from a year ago, and he’s vastly improved his outside shooting from 30 percent to 39 percent this season.
Mason is shooting 41 percent during Minnesota’s eight-game winning streak, and he’s upped his average to 17.2 points per game in the conference. He finished with 25 points on an efficient 9 for 13 shooting against the Huskers Thursday.
He also had 31 in the win over Purdue and 30 in a 1-point win over Indiana.
Yet, Mason’s name is nonexistent on NBA Draft reports.
Maybe his past troubles hurt him a bit, or maybe Minnesota needs a deep run to get Mason a few more looks.
The bad news for the rest of the Big Ten is that the lack of NBA projections probably means Mason will be back in Minneapolis next year.
That’s great news for the Gophers.
3. A loss to Nebraska isn’t good for bubble teams.
Indiana and Iowa are both on the outside looking in for the NCAA Tournament. It’s probably too-little-too-late for both teams unless they can string together miraculous runs in the conference tournament.
Even with strong tourney runs, though, the regular-season resumes for the Hoosiers and Hawkeyes don’t exactly help.
They both lost to Nebraska (12-16, 6-11), a team that’s really struggled during the conference season. The Huskers are just 3-10 after starting the conference schedule with three wins.
To make matters worse, both Indiana and Iowa lost to Nebraska on their home floors.
Nebraska’s lost it’s last three games by an average margin of 15.7 points. Their collapse at the end of the first half Thursday was a sign of the way things are going for the Huskers right now.
Tim Miles’ bunch has some impressive wins — Purdue and at Maryland — but their close to the conference season will stick out in the committee’s mind, and that could be the final nail in a cluster of nails inside the Indiana and Iowa coffins.
Minnesota is rolling, and with Wisconsin’s loss to Iowa Thursday, the Gophers are quickly moving up the Big Ten standings. Sunday’s matchup could be the game of the season in the Big Ten, with the winner taking the 2-seed in the tournament.
The Gophers have definitely put their five-game losing streak behind them and become the hottest team in the conference. The second seed would be huge for a conference-tournament run and a massive jump in seeding come Selection Sunday.
Watch out for the Gophers.