When you look at a photo up close, you’ll probably see some shadows you never noticed from far away. When you look at a person up-close, you'll probably find some flaws you couldn't see at first glance.
It’s the same concept with the Gophers, who at 2-2 with close losses to Michigan and Michigan State are being widely viewed as an early success story and pleasant surprise. (They could be 4-0!) (They nearly won at Breslin Center!)
Those of us who have watched Minnesota game in and game out see the other things: That Michigan was handicapped without Glenn Robinson III for the second half (and clearly without Mitch McGary at all); that Michigan State didn’t have Adreian Payne; that Minnesota has struggled to close, has made plenty of mistakes and have generally been unable to mask their somewhat one-dimensional offense for 40 minutes.
Push all that aside for now. In this league, 2-2 with one road win is not a terrible place to be. Depending on who you talk to, that could be “successful.” The big pictures is still far enough away that the shadows aren't overwhelmingly obvious. But that storyline doesn’t continue if the Gophers don’t show something in these next three games.
Can the Gophers build on that early “success?” They’ll need to get an upset sometime in the next week, when the slate includes Ohio State at home, Iowa on the road and Wisconsin at home.
And guess what? Their best chance comes tonight.
Ohio State comes to Williams Arena (tip-off at 8 p.m.) looking vulnerable but plenty angry, after losing their last two games (at Michigan State and against Iowa at home). That doesn’t go over well in Columbus, and Ohio State will be viewing the Gophers as a must-conquer foe.
But the Buckeyes might be the most beatable of the three. The Gophers always seem to have trouble in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and it should be even harder this season, with Iowa selling out the rest of its games. The Hawkeyes have been playing out of their minds (in a good way) lately, and got a chance to flex just how strong of a team they really are on Sunday against Ohio State, when Iowa completely shredded the Buckeyes’ then top-ranked defense and harassing the normally solid ball handling bunch into 17 turnovers. Gophers should be very, very nervous about the showdown in Iowa City. This isn’t last year’s Hawkeyes – they’ve shown they can close now too. Wisconsin is another tough win for the Gophers because the Badgers are so efficient on both ends of the court, and incredibly balanced. They’ve been really solid all year long, and are extremely battle-tested, owning the No. 2 RPI in the nation.
This is the Big Ten of course, so neither of those games are out of reach by any means.
But Ohio State might present the best opportunity. The Buckeyes have the second best defense in the nation, according to kenpom.com, and are especially good at shutting down the perimeter, where the Gophers do most of their work. None of that sounds like a recipe for a victory, but it’s also not the whole story. Ohio State is struggling right now after consecutive losses, and have legitimate questions about who their go-to man will be in any given situation. They really struggled against Iowa’s zone defense – the Gophers’ go-to, as well -- on Sunday because they aren’t a great shooting team, so you can believe Minnesota will try to exploit the same things.
None of this is to say that it will be easy for the Gophers tonight, or that they are favored (they shouldn’t be), but that it might be their best possible opportunity for an upset in a field of three incredibly tough opportunities. It would also take off the pressure going into the next two games, which will build exponentially as the Gophers keep losing.