The Gophers men's basketball team that lost its top players and even its top suspects for playing time because of the NCAA's wide-open transfer portals managed to go 7-0 in nonconference games, managing to stay perfect with an 81-76 upset victory at Mississippi State on Sunday.
That might not have changed the predicament this strangely assembled roster will face in 20 Big Ten games (this is not the cushy deal that is the Big Ten West in football, after all), but that improbable pre-conference perfection did have this effect:
The Gophers hoops crowd, which has been falling off since Clem Haskins went back to his Kentucky farm in the summer of 1999, had an incentive to show up and get rowdy in support of new coach Ben Johnson and his underdogs in the Big Ten opener.
And the fans did exactly that for this evening with Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans.
The spectators were hollering and jumping for any positive moments for the Gophers, and giving it a good old-fashioned Barn groan when a Gophers shot either clanged or missed entirely.
Unfortunately, the groaning was much more frequent than the hollering and jumping until the final five minutes.
The Gophers were devoured by MSU's notorious stout defense for most of the night in what became a 75-67 victory for the visitors.
A little run near the end made it closer than the reality of the competition. The Gophers could lament poor shooting, but the 6-for-23 accuracy on three-pointers had more to do with either being rushed or in desperation mode than simply missing open threes.
Michigan State had neither of those problems and went 10-for-21 on threes.
Johnson had his pregame media session Tuesday, talked about being pleased with 7-0, and then added: "That can't be the highlight of the season. None of us feel that way."
And then Johnson offered the message he had delivered to his team about Michigan State: "That first down screen, that's live, that's real; that first flare screen, it's real …"
What was also real was the defense the Spartans sent after Jamison Battle, the lefty transfer from George Washington and the Gophers' main man on offense.
Izzo gave three of his players accolades for their defensive work on Battle. He played 40 minutes, found his stroke late, finishing 5-for-14 from the field (3-for-8 on threes) and scoring 17 points.
"I said to Jamison that it was almost a platoon system," Johnson said. "That's why they are a really good program. They have depth, they have versatility."
As has been the case from Game One, the Gophers played the five starters from 31 to 40 minutes. They had 31 minutes total off the bench: 24 for Sean Sutherlin and 7 for Charlie Daniels, the backup center to Eric Curry.
Izzo has a tendency to be effusive in his praise of opposing coaches, and he seemed to go overboard in the case of Johnson. He mentioned the possibility of the Gophers becoming one of the league's strong programs again.
Sorry, Dan Monson (Long Beach State), Tubby Smith (High Point) and Richard Pitino (New Mexico).
There are early hints that Johnson could surpass those three — particularly Pitino, with the eight-season run that ended with his firing on March 11, one day before being announced at New Mexico.
A week later, Johnson was given the Gophers' job on a five-year contract. He had spent the past three seasons as an assistant at Xavier, after leaving Pitino's staff by mutual agreement in 2018.
Johnson's hiring did not create universal approval from that shrinking U of M hoops fan base. Those people wanted a bigger name. They questioned Johnson's experience.
Guess what? Johnson will turn 41 on Dec. 23. Pitino turned 39 on Sept. 16.
Richard was 31 entering his first season in 2013-14. The fact he had been a head coach for one season at Florida International did not change the fact Richard was a much more inexperienced selection to coach the Gophers than Johnson.
The first few weeks after Johnson's hiring seemed a disaster, as 10 players transferred. And then the only player that stayed, Isaiah Ihnen, was injured.
Here's the deal: Johnson might have been baffled over a couple of those Gophers leaving, but he didn't pout about that.
The spirited attitude that he has sold so far to his thin, undertalented collection seems to apply 100% to Johnson as a coach:
"Basketball or life, everybody can do it when it's easy. Who are you when you get punched in the face? Because that's going to come every night.''