This season's Sporting News College Basketball Yearbook hit shelves this week, predicting all things Division I hoops.
Yep, it's that time of year again. No stunner that forecasts are starting to fall, just as college football is beginning.
I was a little surprised, however, when I flipped to the Big Ten section and saw Minnesota ranked all the way down at No. 9 within the league. As you'll recall, the Gophers finished seventh in the conference standings a year ago, then went on to win the NIT.
Considering that the heart of the team is back for 2013-14, that the Gophers have a more established system under second-year coach Richard Pitino and that we saw undeniable improvement from several different players, it's hard to imagine Minnesota going backwards this year, especially with the parity that appears to exist after No. 3 in the rankings.
My official prediction? The Gophers will take a small step in the standings, finishing sixth and sneaking into the NCAA tournament. Minnesota hasn't finished that high in the Big Ten since 2009-10.
Five reasons I believe it could happen this year:
1. The Gophers are stocked with veterans. Austin Hollins graduated, a loss that can't be overstated, but otherwise their end-of-year starting lineup remains in tact and it's seeped in experience. Platoon centers Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason are both seniors. Point guard DeAndre Mathieu and shooting guard Andre Hollins are too. Joey King, who finished the season starting at power forward will be a junior. Even Hollins' likely replacement at the 3-spot is Carlos Morris, a JUCO transfer heading into his third year of collegiate basketball. And that's your starting lineup, folks.
2. It's difficult to imagine the defense getting worse. There's a saying about rock bottom: when you hit it, you can only go up. A year ago, the Gophers ranked dead last in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. But this is Minnesota's second year with the press and Pitino has had a second summer to drive its fundamentals and its importance into his players heads. I'd be stunned if the Gophers actually went backwards.
3. Pitino already has a couple examples of finding underrated talent. Whose to say this class won't be more of the same? Sure, the Gophers don't have a splashy 2014 class coming in. But all four of the new coach's 2013 recruits overachieved, with JUCO transfer DeAndre Mathieu being the most extreme example of that. Beyond the talented point guard, freshman Daquein McNeil displayed surprising defensive sharpness, Malik Smith -- who slumped at the end of the year -- contributed to some big wins early with his shooting prowess, and Joey King was playing by far his best basketball in the postseason. That's a pretty good early track record for Pitino, who essentially had two months to reel in those four recruits.
4. Andre Hollins is hypothetically his old self. Don't forget that the Gophers either played a injured Hollins or without all together for the final 12 Big Ten games. Anyone watching realizes he was nothing like himself at the end of the year. The news, now, is that he's playing better than he has since his sophomore year. The difference between an aggressive Andre Hollins and the passive version is massive. If he can be that perpetual scoring threat once more, well, that is a big, big boost for Minnesota.
5. The Gophers lost five games in which they were trailing by four points or fewer at the end of regulation. Flip just two of them and Minnesota is in the NCAA tournament last year. Of course, losing a bunch of close games isn't all about luck and bad calls (although some of it is), but also about mental toughness, an area where the Gophers have plenty of room to improve. If they can, it could make a big difference on their final record.
As it often is in the Big Ten, there is a murky middle this year. Who will land fourth? Who will land 10th? Opinions seem to be all over the place. This morning I saw Lindy's Sports' Big Ten rankings (h/t UMhoops.com) -- and those folks have the Gophers landing at a stunning fourth in the league, something they last managed a decade ago. But if all the cards fall for Minnesota (Walker takes the next step, Hollins is healthy and back to normal, Mathieu has the same year despite being defended harder and Morris is solid right away), it certainly could happen. It should be an interesting year.
The full predicted order of finish in the Big Ten, per Sporting News:
2. Michigan State
3. Ohio State
11. Penn State