College sports are wildly unpredictable by nature. As Gopher fans, that’s often a very good thing. This is the year we will take back the axe! This is the season every major national publication has underrated our favorite team! The variance between best case and worst case outcomes, the exciting inconsistency in the performance of 18-22 year old student-athletes, is precisely the reason we Still Got Hope.
This year, that unpredictability leads to both hope and…fear? Because we are getting…national respect? It’s strange to me, too. Our Gophers are #15 in the preseason AP poll and in the teens in a myriad of respected preseason publications (as high as #10 in the ESPN power rankings). This brings with it enormous potential – as one can surmise based on rudimentary math, a team in the top 16 is considered a strong candidate for the 2nd weekend of the NCAA tournament. It also brings with it opportunity for a letdown – it would have been hard to underperform our projected 13th place conference finish last year (note: impossible, because Buttgers); it’s a possibility this year. So – what is our ceiling, what is our floor, and how could we reach (or fall to) each?
Clearly, the expectation is for an NCAA caliber team, but can this year’s Gophers win the Big Ten? How far can they advance in the NCAA tournament? I will say the realistic ceiling is Top 2 in the conference (Having MSU only at home is a big advantage, but their “2-play” matchups are easy enough that we are unlikely to win the Big Ten even if we beat them head to head). In NCAA play, I will say our ceiling is a 3 seed and Elite Eight participant. (NOTE: from my perspective, the concept of “ceiling” is a bit useless once you are talking 2nd weekend of the NCAA tournament, as 14 or 15 of those final 16 teams have at least a puncher’s chance to bring home hardware; in the interest of not giving all of our readers priapism, for now we will call the ceiling Elite Eight). To reach these heights, we need to hope that:
- Reggie Lynch stays on the floor – Did you know Reggie Lynch only topped 30 minutes in 5 conference games last year, and had 7 B1G games where he recorded 20 minutes or fewer? I think Konate is a serviceable backup (despite looking like he's wearing mittens every time he tries to catch a pass), but 20+ minutes of Bakary in conference play is not a consistent recipe for success. Last year, Curry was a key reserve not only for Jordan Murphy, but adding valuable spot minutes at the 5. While Fitzgerald looks like he will be able to contribute this year, he doesn’t have quite the size or post ability that Eric Curry did; a Murphy / Fitzgerald front line will only work in small spurts. We need Reggie to play smart, effective defense and average 30 minutes a game.
- Isaiah is the real deal – We know what we have in our starters – five extremely experienced, effective, and cohesive basketball players that stack up favorably against basically anyone in the conference. What will the dropoff look like when we go to the bench? Early returns suggest we have something special in Washington (see highlight reel jelly in exhibition 1, 24 points against UWGB, or basically anything on social media over the past year). If he can provide another dynamic scoring option, continue making great open floor decisions, and alleviate ball handling pressure on Nate Mason (oh, and defend well enough to stay on the court!), our team starts to look even scarier to the opposition.
- Three point shooting gets hot off the bench – Between Mason and Washington, our lead guards are elite at beating man defenders and driving the lane. While our starting wings should both provide adequate shooting from deep, neither is an absolute knockdown 3-point marksmen. If Jamir Harris and Michael Hurt can each get hot on occasion and give us a couple 4 for 6 type shooting nights from deep, it literally could win us multiple games. Both these reserves should be absolutely thrilled about the amount of catch and shoot looks they stand to get off of drive and kick action from their outstanding point guards.
Ok, so there’s a lot that could go right this year. We wouldn’t be Gopher fans if we didn’t devote some time to all the ways we could screw this up. What is our floor? (Takes deep breath) (Crosses fingers) (Knocks on all the wood in sight before writing the rest of this paragraph...). Ok. Honestly, there is a ton of talent on this team, and I don’t see a disastrous under-.500 overall type season in any scenario short of offcourt or injury disaster / rapture / teamwide hand, foot, and mouth disease. We have at least acceptable depth at every position, and 4-5 guys who can get buckets in volume on a given night. These factors should preclude us from any precipitous slides. So, let’s say a realistic, acceptable worst case is that we are ~19-20 game winners overall, 9-9 or so in conference, and in the all-too-familiar spot of a bubble team that is sweating it out on Selection Sunday (miss Tubby Smith yet? Me either). We might be #CLENCHED during the Selection show if:
- Depth suffers due to injuries, off the court issues, or foul trouble – The bogeyman of injuries and off the field issues is self-explanatory (and injuries are out of anyone’s control); for foul issues, see Lynch, Reggie above. If we play significant stretches of the Big Ten season with Lynch, Murphy, or others spending a bunch of time on the bench, we may find ourselves in dogfights with below average Big Ten teams that we should blow out, like Illinois, or Wisconsin.
- Only one basketball for scorers harms chemistry – Through two exhibition games, I’ve already noticed one instance of a player hanging his head because he wasn’t “getting his” touches / points. On balance, I think this team gets along incredibly well, has minimal ego, and is aligned towards a common goal. At the same time, there are a lot of “scorers” on this team and only one basketball. Please, guys, let’s retain the selflessness, ball movement, and team energy from last year – I don’t want to see us losing games because individuals are insistent on going one on one or driving into traffic to accumulate personal stats. Note: I'm completely fine if we WIN games because individuals go off one on one, a la noted Badger killer Lawrence Westbrook, but it's probably not the most sustainable strategy.
- Defense is lacking in certain rotations – I love, LOVE, when Washington plays PG and Mason plays SG in spurts – I think it’s great offensively for Nate to have a break from taking the ball up and to give the defense a different look at him off the ball. That said, that lineup is lacking in length, and it features a true freshman who hasn’t shown outstanding defensive effort. The same issue arises if Washington and Harris are the two guards. Essentially, any lineup where McBrayer isn’t at the 2 gets short on length and long on youth, and that could burn us at times. We need our freshmen guards to rotate smart and use quickness and good positioning to overcome potential defensive issues in our rotations throughout games.
What does this all mean? As you may have gathered from my Season in Review article, I lean more towards the ceiling than the floor (shocking as a huge fan and noted eternal optimist, I know). I think we will be in the top tier of Big Ten teams, in the next group after MSU just as predicted. The only questions on Selection Sunday will be around our precise seed, location, and opponent. Once single elimination play begins, it is frankly an utter crapshoot, but this team if healthy and cohesive has the talent to ultimately be favored in its first two games in the NCAAs.