This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.

  Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno

Are the Gophers ready for the Big Ten?

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball, Gophers players Updated: December 30, 2012 - 12:00 PM

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.

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LA Clippers 98
Boston 88 FINAL
Washington 101
Orlando 102 FINAL
Charlotte 94
Memphis 103 FINAL
Miami 95
Indiana 110 FINAL
Brooklyn 85
New Orleans 100 FINAL
Chicago 107
Atlanta 82 4th Qtr 3:31
Milwaukee 80
Philadelphia 47 3rd Qtr 5:19
Utah 48
New York 32 2nd Qtr 9:45
Sacramento 44
Minnesota 9:30 PM
Golden State
NY Islanders 3 FINAL(SO)
Buffalo 4
Detroit 3 FINAL(OT)
Ottawa 2
Carolina 1 FINAL
Tampa Bay 2
New Jersey 1 FINAL
NY Rangers 3
Boston 2 FINAL
Columbus 6
Winnipeg 4 FINAL(OT)
Minnesota 3
Washington 3 FINAL
Pittsburgh 0
Dallas 4 3rd Prd 3:02
St. Louis 3
Philadelphia 1 FINAL
Nashville 4
Anaheim 1 1st OT
Arizona 1
Chicago 3 2nd Prd :44
Colorado 2
Edmonton 0 1st Prd 5:09
Calgary 3
San Jose 1 1st Prd 7:28
Los Angeles 0
Indiana 87 FINAL
Georgetown 91
Maine 43 FINAL
Seton Hall 72
UNC-Wilmington 82 FINAL
Minnesota 108
Georgia State 61 FINAL
Green Bay 78
Jacksonville St 61 FINAL
Jacksonville 75
Kentucky 58 FINAL
Louisville 50
Northern Ky 55 FINAL
Northwestern 76
UAB 58 FINAL
North Carolina 89
IUPUI 55 FINAL
Pepperdine 53
Santa Clara 60 FINAL
St Marys-CA 73
Oakland 56 FINAL
Maryland 72
Gonzaga 87 FINAL
BYU 80
Mercer 77 FINAL
Georgia 86
San Francisco 77 FINAL
Pacific 71
Wright State 55 FINAL
Ohio State 100
Presbyterian 65 FINAL
Virginia Tech 87
Brescia 42 FINAL
Western Ky 89
Tennessee St 46 FINAL
Tennessee 67
Kennesaw St 30 2nd Half 7:50
Illinois 82
Colorado State 42 2nd Half 6:33
New Mexico St 42
Portland 58 2nd Half 1:07
San Diego 58
Wayland Baptist 49 2nd Half 6:52
Utah State 64
Bristol University 53 2nd Half 3:26
Weber State 107
Sacramento St 72 2nd Half 3:15
Utah Valley U 48
Southern Utah 21 1st Half 3:44
UNLV 34
SD Christian 13 1st Half 4:28
San Diego St 28
Illinois 18 FINAL
Louisiana Tech 35
Rutgers 40 FINAL
North Carolina 21
NC State 34 FINAL
UCF 27
Cincinnati 17 FINAL
Virginia Tech 33
(15) Arizona State 36 FINAL
Duke 31
Miami-Florida 21 FINAL
So Carolina 24
Boston College 30 FINAL
Penn State 31
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(7) Michigan State 1/1/15 11:30 AM
(4) Baylor
(16) Missouri 1/1/15 12:00 PM
Minnesota
(2) Florida State 1/1/15 4:00 PM
(3) Oregon
(5) Ohio State 1/1/15 7:30 PM
(1) Alabama
Houston 1/2/15 11:00 AM
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Iowa 1/2/15 2:20 PM
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Washington 1/2/15 9:15 PM
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Florida
SMU 45 FINAL
(2) Connecticut 96
UCF 64 FINAL
Houston 50
BYU 62 FINAL
Gonzaga 78
Pacific 92 FINAL
San Francisco 54
St Marys-CA 62 FINAL
Santa Clara 61
San Diego 87 FINAL
Portland 65

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