Big Ten men's basketball appears to be back after a down year in 2017-18.
Based on early projections, arguably college basketball's best conference through November could double the amount of teams it got into the NCAA tournament last March, which was only four, its fewest since 2008.
Seven Big Ten teams were ranked as of Sunday, the most since 1999. And 10 teams received Associated Press Top 25 votes, including the Gophers.
We see from those early results this year that the Big Ten is a top conference again. We're still not so sure yet where Minnesota (6-1) fits into that mix, but Sunday's Big Ten opener at No. 16 Ohio State (6-1) should be revealing.
"Minnesota's been volatile," Fox Sports analyst Jim Jackson said on a recent podcast. "They start off well in a lot of instances … and as the season teeters on they tend to lose momentum. Hopefully, that's not the case [this year]."
The talent is there for Richard Pitino to see a turnaround in his sixth season, especially with Big Ten Player of the Year contender Jordan Murphy, who was joined by Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer as starters on the Gophers' 2017 NCAA tournament team.
The supporting cast for that veteran core includes talented freshmen Gabe Kalscheur and Daniel Oturu, senior transfers Matz Stockman and Brock Stull and a wild-card sophomore in Isaiah Washington, who was having a rough start to the season but came up big in Friday night's 83-76 victory over Oklahoma State at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"We've beaten a Big 12 team [Oklahoma State], two Pac-12 teams [Washington and Utah] and an SEC team [Texas A&M] and I don't believe it's December yet," Pitino said Friday night. "We've challenged these guys, and they've responded really well."
The Gophers got off to their fourth 5-0 start in six seasons under Pitino, which included winning the Vancouver Showcase before Thanksgiving. Kalscheur has been a pleasant surprise with a 25-point performance vs. Santa Clara and a winning three-pointer vs. Washington already under his belt.
Murphy is doing exactly what was expected of him, and more efficiently. The 6-foot-7 senior forward was leading the team in scoring (15.7) and the nation in rebounding (12.7). He became the school's all-time leading rebounder and piled up six double-doubles in his first seven games.
Murphy's production is a given, but the Gophers are still searching for consistency at point guard and center. Help could be coming soon for the latter.
Sophomore big man Eric Curry has not been cleared to play after surgery in the fall on a previously injured left knee, but he's progressing for a return this month. Oturu and Stockman are juggling center duties in Curry's absence.
Coffey is also still figuring out how to play point guard for the first time in place of the graduated Nate Mason.
At halftime of Monday's 12-point loss at Boston College, Pitino took Coffey aside and told him he can't take just two shots in a half, especially with Murphy in foul trouble and others struggling to score.
"I'm trying to balance a little bit trying to get my teammates involved," Coffey said, "but I also have to be aggressive myself."
The Big Ten won't wait around for Coffey to get hot, Curry to get healthy and the Gophers to become a legitimate contender. The conference's upper echelon is already pretty good and can get a lot better.
Michigan State and Michigan look most capable of representing the Big Ten in the Twin Cities at the Final Four in April.
The Wolverines reloaded after losing a few starters from last year's NCAA runner-up squad, already with the Big Ten's best victories over North Carolina and defending NCAA champion Villanova.
Nebraska, Indiana, Purdue, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State and Maryland either have spent time or were ranked in the Top 25 as of Sunday. They make up a wide-open second tier of the league.
One thing as certain as the Big Ten's resurgence is that the Gophers have the potential to be a reason more teams from the league make the Big Dance.
They need to get healthy and probably get lucky at some point. That's not in their control, though, as much as establishing an identity and sticking to it in a tough and long Big Ten season.
"We're very long and athletic," Gophers junior Michael Hurt said. "I think if we can make our identity more defensive- and rebounding-oriented, then we'll start trending in the right way and playing our best basketball."