Nine games are done, and no conclusion is reached. Nine games remain to change that.
The Gophers are halfway through a conference schedule that has felt like a roller coaster — filled with dramatic highs and lows that have inserted them firmly in the middle of the Big Ten pack.
What they do in the next nine conference games, beginning with Wednesday’s game at Purdue, will determine whether Minnesota can advance to the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season, and the first under new coach Richard Pitino. While it’s far too early to count them out — the league’s balance assures that Minnesota is still in it with a 4-5 Big Ten record — the Gophers will need to rebound from consecutive losses to Nebraska and Northwestern quickly in order to solidify their NCAA tournament résumé.
“If we don’t handle our business this week, we could be down at the bottom of the league,” Pitino said. “A week from tomorrow, we could be at the bottom. Or we could be at the top. It just shows how competitive this league is, top to bottom.”
Here’s a look at the first half of the league slate:
• Minnesota’s offense has been relatively efficient. Pitino came in with a new system and a new philosophy, but the Gophers have picked it up quickly, their offensive efficiency rating (points per possession) climbing to 17th nationally and fifth in the conference. Pitino allows his players to operate with a lot of autonomy on offense, and the result has been confident players and, with a few exceptions (most notably on Saturday against Northwestern), consistent production.
• The center spot is stronger than anyone thought. At the beginning of the season, the frontcourt looked like the Gophers’ biggest liability. Now, that’s not exactly true. Elliott Eliason has provided a strong defensive presence in the paint for most of the year and, when he’s struggled in the past few games, backup center Mo Walker has conveniently picked up his play, giving the Gophers a legitimate scoring option in the post. It’s not a perfect mix, but it’s a big improvement from the expectations.
• The Gophers have proven they can play with the best. Minnesota has a losing record in league play right now, but the team has had at least an eight-point lead in seven of the nine games — every game until the past two. The Gophers have wins against two ranked teams — Ohio State and Wisconsin — the latter coming after Andre Hollins suffered an ankle injury. “I feel like we can compete with anybody in the Big Ten,” guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “As long as we keep playing hard.”
• Malik Smith has stepped up. With Hollins out, Smith’s role has become even more important. He’s slipped into the starting lineup and provided a big offensive spark at Nebraska, scoring 29 points in spite of the loss. In the past several weeks, he’s become a more complete player, rather than just a shooter. “He’s definitely done a good job of being a multidimensional threat offensively,” Pitino said. Now, the next step for him is finding consistency.
• Andre Hollins is out. The Gophers thrived in the game he went down, against Wisconsin but have played two of their worst games of the season since then, losing at Nebraska and to Northwestern. Minnesota has missed the guard’s presence both offensively and defensively and, with the rotation shaken up substantially, the Gophers are still trying to adjust.
• The defense has just been ugly. How ugly? Last-in-the-Big Ten ugly. Both Minnesota’s press and it’s 2-3 zone have been inconsistent and largely ineffective recently. In the past four games, opponents have shot 40 percent from three-point range, 52 percent on two-point attempts. And they’ve sent opponents to the line 100 times, compared to their 69 trips, over that span. All signs point to the Gophers defense only getting worse, not better.
• Can the Gophers win on the road? They haven’t yet shown that ability. So far, Minnesota’s most impressive road win is still at Richmond back in November. In the Big Ten, the only victory the Gophers have claimed away from Williams Arena is a win at Penn State — not exactly inspiring. It’s something the NCAA tournament selection committee will be looking for.
• Minnesota hasn’t shown the ability to close. As referenced above, the Gophers have had notable leads in most of their games. And yet they’ve shown the mind-numbing tendency to fall apart for 10-minute stretches, playing themselves out of games. “All the great teams, they always kick it into extra gear and push out their leads. We have yet to do that,” Walker said.
Considering the modest expectations entering the season, the Gophers could be in a much worse position than sitting in a four-way tie for fifth place entering the final stretch. Still, they have much to prove. The defense has dragged the team down in a handful of very winnable games. Andre Hollins could miss a few more games. The execution needs to get sharper, and more consistent. Minnesota is firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble, owning a couple of strong wins but also some bad losses. The committee no longer weighs the final stretch more heavily than the first, but the Gophers still do have chances to impress, with games at Wisconsin, at Ohio State and at Michigan.