SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — While Tubby Smith talked about the Gophers' 72-67 victory over No. 8 North Carolina Friday on the radio, one disheartened Tar Heels fan in the front row made his pitch.

"Come to Carolina, Tubby. C'mon. We wanted you before," he said.

The Gophers' success has made the college basketball world pay attention. They can win the Puerto Rico Tip-off championship with a victory over West Virginia, a Final Four squad last season, on Sunday.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams offered common kudos after Friday's game. But when he got up from the podium, he emphasized the sincerity of his praise for the Gophers.

"They made the NCAA tournament last year. They had a great run," Williams said. "They're a good basketball team. And they guarded us and were a lot more aggressive than we were."

West Virginia's Bob Huggins said he watched last week's Siena-Gophers matchup. His verdict? The Gophers are legit.

"I like them," Huggins said. "They're athletic. ... Tubby's just got a bunch of guys. They always guard. They don't beat themselves."

Beginning with a run to the Big Ten tournament final in March through Friday's signature win, Smith has put the Gophers on a national platform not achieved by the program since the late '90s.

With players deemed too flawed to play for highly touted squads such as North Carolina, Smith has gone to back-to-back NCAA tournaments, and this season's squad likely will crack the top 25 in the polls next week.

A convincing victory over West Virginia, a borderline top-25 squad, could result in the program's first top-15 ranking since the Gophers were ranked No. 2 in the 1996-97 season. Since that team's results were vacated, the Gophers haven't officially been in the top 15 since 1981-82, when the Gophers won the Big Ten title.

Junior forward Trevor Mbakwe said the Gophers aren't worried about their national ranking.

"That's for you guys to decide," he said. "We're just going to go out and play every game like it's our last. If we're top 25, it's great. But at the end of the day, it doesn't really mean much because when we get on the court, the rankings go out the window."

Yes, it's early, but the Gophers' nonconference victories should enhance their NCAA tournament profile come March.

The Tar Heels might not be who most thought they were. But the Gophers have beaten four teams that could end up in the Big Dance at the end of the season, a plus with the selection committee.

Neutral-court victories over top-10 teams Louisville in 2008-09 and Butler last season became critical factors for the Gophers on Selection Sunday.

But Gophers veterans won't allow the team to get content with this early success.

"We're only four games into the season, so you can't be too excited about what we're doing right now," senior guard Blake Hoffarber said. "We have a long road ahead of us. We just have to keep going out there and competing."

Although Smith is the most popular college basketball coach in San Juan right now, he has reason to envy his colleagues participating in the Puerto Rico Tip-off.

Doc Sadler's Nebraska team went 2-14 in the Big 12 last year.

But the Cornhuskers will play in a new 16,000-seat, $168 million facility in 2013, when they will be part of the Big Ten. Their new practice facility will open next season. Williams tracks down his recruits in a private jet, one of the many perks enjoyed by high-profile coaches around the country.

Smith said additional resources, like his promised practice facility, won't deter him from signing an extension, which is currently being negotiated.

"It's still a matter of negotiating. It's just a matter of time," Smith said during Big Ten media day in October.

But with each week that passes without an announcement about a new contract for Smith, doubt about his future with the Gophers program flourishes.

And with each big victory, the price to keep him increases.