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Minnesota's Rodney Williams

Renee Jones Schneider, Dml - Star Tribune

U's competition spiced up, but only a bit

  • Article by: MICHAEL RAND
  • Star Tribune
  • November 24, 2011 - 9:12 AM

ORLANDO - Signature non-conference victories have been a staple of the past three Gophers men's basketball seasons under Tubby Smith -- two of which resulted in NCAA tournament berths. Three years ago, it was Louisville; two years ago, it was Butler. And last season, a big victory over North Carolina gave the Gophers and their fans reason for early optimism. All three opponents were ranked in the top-15 at the time.

But you shouldn't expect a similar victory this season for a very good reason: No such opportunity exists on the Gophers' nonconference schedule.

Sure, Minnesota's schedule is hitting a new gear Thursday at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. After starting 4-0 against smaller programs, the team's next five opponents, starting with DePaul on Thanksgiving, could very well come from the Big East, Big 12, Pac-10 and ACC. A second-round matchup against Texas Tech in Orlando is possible, while Arizona State and Wake Forest reside in the lower half of the eight-team bracket.

After that, Minnesota returns home for games next week against Virginia Tech and USC. Those five games probably represent the best tests the Gophers are going to get before Big Ten play.

"The level of competition is definitely going to be a step up," Rodney Williams said. "I'm not saying the teams we've been playing weren't good, but I think the teams we'll see are a little bigger, more our size, and we're going to have to be more aggressive."

While that is true, so is this: None of those teams was picked to finish better than sixth in their conference in preseason polls (DePaul, most notably, was picked last among 16 teams by Big East coaches). In fact, no team on the entire Gophers nonconference schedule even received a vote in the most recent AP or coaches poll.

Of course, projections and rankings this early -- or anytime, for that matter -- only mean so much.

"We really don't look at who's ranked. We don't care who's ranked. I have no clue who is ranked where," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "I'm so concerned about how we're performing and getting guys ready."

For the Gophers' long-term purposes in the RPI -- a major factor in selecting the NCAA tournament field -- it would be nice if their Orlando opponents hit their stride eventually. In the short-term, Smith still considers them dangerous.

"We have to play the game regardless of it's [against] No. 1 or No. 121," he said. "But this is always a good field. There might be some teams struggling early, but they are trying to find their role and flow. Everybody is going through the same thing we're going through."

Indeed. The Gophers are basically mirror images of a lot of their upcoming opponents, with several young players trying to mesh with holdovers in Smith's system. Their best performance of the season came Monday, when the Gophers jumped out to a 33-point halftime lead on the way to drubbing Mount St. Mary's.

"I'm sure it gets guys feeling a lot better about themselves," Smith said of the blowout victory after three relatively close victories to start the season.

How it impacts this next stretch of games remains to be seen. Regardless, the Gophers are banking on the notion that lacking a signature nonconference victory -- or even opponent -- doesn't mean they can't grow and learn.

"We don't have the preseason team like we're used to having like North Carolina or Butler or stuff like that, but there's going to be some good teams [in Orlando]," Gophers senior forward Trevor Mbakwe said. "It's going to be a chance for us to get away from home and see where we are."

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