San Juan, Puerto Rico - Before the Puerto Rico Tipoff, we didn't know who they were.
After just two regular season games, the Gophers were still learning about themselves.
Is this the team that finished strong against Wofford with an inside attack that's performed as well as any frontcourt in the Big Ten so far? Or is this the squad that continues to struggle against one-man bands (see Siena's Clarence Jackson)?
And what was that Winona State exhibition all about?
There were questions before Puerto Rico. Now, there are answers, after the Gophers knocked off Western Kentucky, No. 8 North Carolina and West Virginia on their way to the tournament title.
-With Trevor Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson III, Mo Walker and Colton Iverson, the Gophers have a frontcourt that's deeper than any in the Big Ten. They have all of the pieces to operate Smith's high-low attack and anchor this squad all year.
-Al Nolen is a better player after sitting out the second half of the 2009-10 season due to academic issues.
He's a better leader, too. Mbakwe didn't say a word when the senior scolded him for a bad pass Sunday. Or when he told him to "hold onto the [%^&*&**] ball!"
Nolen's the Tom Brady of this attack right now. He's respected by his teammates. They look to him. The Gophers could have lost, would have lost to North Carolina and West Virginia without Nolen's poise. There's no point guard debate on this team.
-Blake Hoffarber will keep shooting. And shooting. And shooting until he hits one. It's a 180-degree turnaround from the last two seasons. After a stellar freshman year, Hoffarber struggled at times his second season. Early misses would zap his confidence in the past.
With West Virginia's athletic defenders on him, mainly Casey Mitchell, Hoffarber missed his only three-point attempt in the first half. The senior went 4-for-8 in the second half and hit the go-ahead three-pointer with 92 seconds on the clock.
-The freshmen don't know they're freshmen. They're supposed to defer to veterans in tight games like the one they were in Sunday. They're not supposed to cut a nine-point lead to three points against a squad that made the Final Four last season. They're not supposed to hit clutch jump shots in the middle of a come-from-behind rally with the a crucial nonconference victory on the line. And they're not supposed to go after clutch rebounds in the final seconds ... and grab them. This is a mature group.
-They did all of this without Devoe Joseph, who might be the best player on the roster.
-They're Big Ten title contenders at this juncture. It's early. But the Gophers are definitely in that conversation after this weekend. They join Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State and Illinois as "contenders." We'll see how Wisconsin recovers from the UNLV loss, but the Badgers might be in the mix once the season begins, too.
But this is a team that looks capable of challenging for a Big Ten title.
Did you see Kevin Noreen?
The former Minnesota Transitions star and the state's career scoring leader played six minutes and scored four points for West Virginia.
West Virginia's Mitchell says team could have done more