As noted by Amelia Rayno in her advance story for today's paper, the Gophers are on the brink of a huge three-game stretch. It's quite early in the Big Ten season, so it's not fair to call it a "make-or-break" or some other similar thing. But let's be clear: Because of the way the team has faltered in Big Ten play in many other seasons under Tubby Smith, these are important games against No. 12 Illinois (tonight), No. 5 Indiana (Saturday) and No. 2 Michigan (next Thursday), with the first two coming on the road.
We consider all three games to be equal in scope. As such, here is how we break it down:
The Gophers go 0-3 during this stretch: It won't be fatal in terms of their season, but it will be a major dagger when it comes to public opinion. Minnesota is 14-1, ranked No. 8 in the country and looks as though it belongs in the conversation as a Big Ten contender.
The Gophers go 1-2 during this stretch: It would be understandable, even if hardly ideal. They created some margin for error by taking care of business in their first two games. Losing some combination of two of these next three games would still leave them at 3-2 in the conference with winnable games ahead. But it would still kill some of the early buzz.
The Gophers go 2-1 during this stretch: Frankly, this is doable. It's not going to be easy, but particularly if the Gophers can win at Illinois tonight, they have a realistic chance of emerging from the gauntlet with two wins. They obviously never want to lose, but the team would surely take it. Fans? They'd be pretty close to thrilled.
The Gophers go 3-0 during this stretch: Bedlam. Scalpers start charging $30,000 a game at Williams Arena. Fans book Final Four trips. OK, maybe not that extreme. But still, if the Gophers manage to win all three of these games? They immediately enter Big Ten title talk as well as create expectations that a deep NCAA tourney run is possible.
What is the most likely? A lot of it hinges on tonight. Win at Illinois and we think they will go 2-1. Lose tonight, and 1-2 becomes the more realistic goal. We think they win tonight, so we'll say 2-1 during this stretch -- enough to surely keep the buzz going and establish themselves as serious contenders.
Your thoughts, please, in the comments.