It became pretty evident weeks ago that the Gophers were well-equipped to play with the slate of mid-major non-conference talent that was being thrown at them.
After the Gophers dissembled USC earlier this month, the final two competitions -- vs. North Dakota State and Lafayette -- just felt like formalities leading up to the real season's start. There was little doubt the Gophers would soundly beat these opponents, and even slow starts or moments of sloppiness felt fleeting. The consensus was that these Gophers were unquestionably good enough to beat those teams (which is notable because it didn't always feel that way last year).
But now, the Gophers are at a new point of the season, the point where we figure out if Minnesota can translate their early success to the Big Ten court, whether they can maintain their now lofty expectations and remain one of the top-ranked teams in the nation.
The Gophers have looked good so far, but are they ready for the Big Ten?
You'll hear arguments for both sides, and I have alternately fell in both camps.
Argument No. 1: Bring it on. This Gophers squad is so different from last year's version. Let me count the ways:
a) A renewed focus on defense. Already the Gophers' defensive play is light years ahead of where it was a season ago, and has been pretty efficient all year long, regardless of the opponent. (The only time Minnesota has really struggled defensively was against Duke, which shot 54.5 percent against the Gophers, but had a rare shooting day for any team). The Gophers are 22nd nationally in field goal percentage defense, 15th in steals and ninth in blocked shots. Now keep in mind that many other major programs (including the Big Ten) was playing the same caliber of opponents. So ... not bad.
b) A truly balanced scoring attack. Last year there was talk about the Gophers having the kind of team that could feature a different leading scorer every night. That was mostly because the Gophers simply weren't that good last year, and they didn't have ANY one player capable of breaking out on a consistent basis. The same theory about a different leading scorer night to night is true of this year's squad, but otherwise the scoring profile is quite different. This year there are FIVE players that can be expected to step up every night. Who leads is not so much an anecdote -- as it was last year -- but a technicality, because often it's only by a point or two. The Gophers have had four games with four players finishing with double digits and 10 games when Minnesota had at least three. Rodney Williams, Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman are all averaging double digits on the year. And with that kind of balance, it shows in everything. The opponents' defense is forced to spread thin to cover the range of threats. And the Gophers are playing looser because they don't care who scores. It's a beautiful thing.
c) Poise and a killer instinct. It's a tangible thing this year. The Gophers don't have the mental lapses and extended periods of sloppiness like they did in the past, and even when the team gets behind on the scoreboard, there isn't a feeling of panic now, just resolve to figure things out and regain the advantage. And for the most part, they've done just that, whether it be an offense that is slow to take off or a defensive zone to crack. That calm can make all the difference.
Argument No. 2: Beware. The Gophers haven't proven anything yet and the Big Ten is simply a different story.
a) Misleading non-conference success. The Gophers best wins are as follows: Memphis (No. 19 at the time of the victory); Florida State; USC. FSU was supposed to still have some spark and defensive prowess from last year's ACC champion squad, but the Seminoles have since lost to Mercer and Florida. USC was supposed to be much improved from a year ago with a cache of eligible transfers and Jio Fontan returning, but the Trojans have spiraled, losing eight games already. Even South Dakota State came to the Barn without its shining star, Nate Wolters, in the lineup. That leaves a steady diet of wins over mid-major and clearly inferior opponents. Granted, the Gophers took care of business. But beyond that, what did they prove? Not much.
b) The offense still looks stagnant and unflexible sometimes. When the Gophers can't get out in transition, the team still struggles at times in the half court. Yes, they've gotten much better in that regard, and that's helped by the team's balance and the fact that there's no pressure to continually feed the ball to one individual. As it is, the Gophers made it work, even when everything isn't clicking perfectly. But in the Big Ten, the defenses get tougher, the frontcourts get bigger and other teams are very capable of dictating their own pace. The Gophers only score a handful of points in transition each game. Their shooting and ball handling will need to improve simultaneously with their ability to get more creative in the halfcourt.
c) Do the Gophers have enough inside strength and size? Will Trevor Mbakwe be starting on Monday and going forward? We still don't know. Will Mo Walker exhibit the kind of energy necessary to play with this team? What is Elliott Eliason's role now and can he hang with conference bigs in the paint? Will the Gophers continue to play a small lineup with Rodney Williams at the 4 as they have done all season? If they do, will that be an adequate counter to the league's brawn? The Gophers lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, but have struggled getting defensive boards -- can they improve in that regard? These are a whole bunch of questions that remain unanswered about the team's frontcourt, and must be figured out soon if the team is to keep the success going.
Given the two arguments, you can decide for yourself what you think the Gophers' Big Ten fate is -- or, you can just wait a couple days and get a better hint. Each side goes through my head, depending on what I see on any given night, and the reality is, at this point, we just don't know what the immediate future brings -- there are too many variables. Right now, I think the Gophers have proven more than they haven't; that is, the known strengths outweigh the weaknesses and unknowns. No. 11 nationwide is high, and there are expectations and pressure that comes with that. Can the Gophers live up to it? We'll find out soon.