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

Can the Gophers be a top 3 team in the conference?

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball, Gophers players Updated: November 30, 2012 - 11:52 AM

The way the Gophers are playing right now, they could be a top 3 team in the Big Ten – high praise considering the strength of the league. There are a lot more games to be played, but to this point, the Gophers look like they belong.

From the start this year, the Big Ten has once again been lauded as one of college basketball’s best conferences, one with a particularly strong top.

Preseason top 25 rankings put as many as three Big Ten teams (Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State) in the nation’s top five as the Gophers were around No. 25- 30 in most.

Of course, now that we’re a good month into the season, we know a lot more. Everyone in the top half of the conference has played some tough competition already, and we’ve how each squad reacts under pressure.

So knowing what we know now, how do the Gophers fit in? Where do they belong in all of this now, and what is their ceiling? Can they be a top five team, a top four? Can they (gulp) compete with the top three?

Instant, gut answer: I don’t know.

The Gophers have played some good teams, but their biggest wins have also been a little bit misleading (At this point in the season, I just don’t think either Memphis or Florida State are that GOOD).

But that’s a boring response, right?

So let’s look at just what exactly the Gophers have done (and haven’t) and what the preseason top five league teams have done (and haven’t) up to this point:

Indiana: I mean, wow. The Hoosiers were given a big burden to carry – being named best team in the country by many media outlets – and they’ve hoisted it over their heads like a feather. After winning their first seven games in truly dominating fashion, Indiana brushed past North Carolina on Tuesday like the Tar Heels were just another Ball State. UNC scored just 59 points and lost by 24? Yikes. This team has proven to be extremely balanced and able to hurt opponents in every aspect of the game. Plus, Cody Zeller is the superstar he’s supposed to be. Look out rest of the conference.

Michigan: Some complained that the Wolverines ranked too high at the start of the year, but they have done nothing but prove their worthiness so far – notching wins over Pittsburgh, Kansas State and NC State on their way to 6-0. Michigan has exhibited a great balance of guards and bigs – with freshmen Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III off to good starts and the Wolverines backcourt of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. looking as good as advertised. And they’ve even proven capable of playing out of their wheelhouse, getting physical with Pitt. The Wolverines deserve to be where they are right now.

Ohio State: They’ve lost to Duke, but I mean, who hasn’t (as Gopher fans don’t you love that you can say that?). The Buckeyes weren’t totally outdone by the Blue Devils, but they did allow an uncharacteristic comeback after a solid first-half lead. Ohio State hasn’t really played anyone else of note yet – with the game against Marquette getting cancelled – so it’s hard to garner too much this early, but there hasn’t been anything to sway the belief that this Buckeyes team is solid. Deshaun Thomas has been carrying the offense so far with player-of-the-year type numbers.

Michigan State: I think the reaction to the Spartans losing each of their only two marquee games so far (against Connecticut and Miami – neither of which are ranked, by the way) is more confusion than anything else. Tom Izzo seems like he’s a little baffled too – yes, MSU is in flux with its rotation and trying to start a new era without leader Draymond Green but on Wednesday against Miami, Sparty didn’t even challenge at the end (and the U was so excited, it stormed the court). Michigan State has looked sloppy at times and the defense has shown plenty of holes, but Adrian Payne and Derrick Nix are still not playing up to their potential and the Spartans just got two huge returns in Gary Harris and Travis Trice. So things will turn around … right?

Wisconsin: What’s going on with the Badgers? Wisconsin has now collected losses against Florida, Creighton and then Virginia the other night in the challenge, and it is not looking anything like the top 25 team it was labeled in the preseason (they’ve subsequently dropped out). What’s the problem? Well, the Badgers don’t have a point guard right now, for starters. After losing Josh Gasser to an ACL injury before the start of the season, George Marshall ineffectively tried to pick up the reins and now Traevon Jackson has taken over and will try to be better. The Badgers have four players averaging double digits, but they need more production from their guards. Things will surely get better, but so far? Ugly.

So where do the Gophers fit into that? Compared with how the rest of the top half of the conference is playing right now,Minnesota at least looks like it could be a Top 3 team – and certainly a top 4 team. Michigan and Indiana have been near-perfect, but right now, everyone else looks beatable and has shown weaknesses.

Will the Gophers continue their successful path enough to keep up with the Ohio States, the Michigan States, the Wisconsins that will surely get better?

Well, that’s what we’ll have to wait to find out.

We know a lot more now, but it’s not nearly what we’ll know a week into conference play. Of course, that’s what makes it fun!

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