Gophers exceed expectations with hot start

Published 1:24am Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Column: Notes from Nashville, by Andrew Dyrdal

The Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball team was not expected to make the NCAA Tournament this season.

After losing stars Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams to graduation, and replacing the fired Tubby Smith with Richard Pitino, who had only one year of head coaching experience, expectations were low for the maroon and gold. Low to the point that Big Ten Conference coaches picked Minnesota to finish last in the league.

The Gophers have been more impressive than anticipated through the first 10 games this season. Minnesota is 8-2 with a close loss to now No. 2-ranked Syracuse and a 15-point loss to Arkansas at the Maui Invitational. The Gophers’ most impressive win has been a 10-point victory over Florida State in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge in early December.

What has been even more impressive, though, is the play of the top-heavy Big Ten as a whole, which now has three teams ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll: No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 5 Michigan State.

The Big Ten is surprisingly tough this year, and, after coming from behind to tie the ACC in their annual cross-conference challenge, it now has five teams ranked in the nation’s top 25 and one more receiving votes (Indiana).

With the Buckeyes, Badgers and Spartans landing near the top of the list, the Gophers will play five games against teams currently ranked in the top five and will have plenty of opportunities to bolster their tournament resume with upsets.

With three home games against beatable opponents left on their non-conference schedule, the Gophers will likely enter the Big Ten season with an 11-2 record. Winning half of their conference games — in what is still one of the most talented conferences in the nation — will get them to 20 wins and into the NCAA Tournament.

Without having played a conference opponent yet, the Gophers have caught the eye of national college basketball analysts.

Jay Bilas of ESPN has the Gophers rated 59th in his Bilas Index ranking the top 68 teams in the nation. 59th might be underrated, too, but Bilas believes the Gophers are good enough to be included in March Madness.

I believe Minnesota’s up-tempo style of play, led by new point guard Dre Mathieu will have the Gophers vying for a spot in the NCAA Tournament this March.

Pitino has his team believing they can beat anyone in the nation and working hard enough to actually do it. The Gophers have a good shot at beating one of the conference’s best teams to earn that signature victory needed for their resumé.

Andrew Dyrdal’s column appears in the Tribune each Tuesday.