Big Ten Slowly Eating the Golden Gophers AlivePosted by BHayes on February 21st, 2013
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
Next time Tubby Smith feels inclined to show off his dance moves, he might think twice. After the old coach cut up a rug in the Gopher locker room following an overtime win over Wisconsin, all his team has done is go on the road and get smacked twice, dropping games to Iowa and Ohio State by a combined 47 points. Suffice it to say that there was no two-stepping going on in the visitor’s locker room in Columbus last night, as Minnesota has now dropped five consecutive road contests. Dazzling computer numbers and a handful of quality victories should prevent the Gophers from slipping all the way out of the NCAA Tournament field, but for a team that was once 15-1 and in the top 10 of both national polls, this late February predicament feels like one that never should have happened.
The Gopher offense still ranks in Ken Pomeroy’s top-25 nationally in regard to offensive efficiency, but the recent slide has coincided with some serious issues putting the ball in the bucket. Minnesota exceeded 70 points in all but two of their first 18 games; in the last nine affairs (a stretch where they went 3-6), Tubby’s crew has managed 60 points just twice. Star guard Andre Hollins’ production has been equally dismal over that stretch, having shot just 32% from the field over those nine games. Tubby Smith had to expect his team’s offense to drop off a bit when they hit Big Ten play, but the grade of that cliff has proven far steeper than he would have liked.
The good news, at least as far as their potential NCAA inclusion goes, is that Minnesota checks out well with the RPI – they were #15 before the loss to the Buckeyes. The quality of the Big Ten deserves a lot of credit for that, as the Gophers have only one non-conference victory over a presumptive NCAA Tournament team (Memphis), unless we are planning on either SDSU or NDSU earning the Summit League’s auto-bid. Wins in-conference play over Michigan State, Wisconsin and at Illinois are all nice coups, but let’s not sugarcoat it – the computer numbers look a whole lot better than an objective look at either the schedule or the team on the floor does right now.
It’s uncertain if #1 Indiana’s date at Williams Arena on Tuesday is the perfect antidote or simply more poison for Minnesota, but clearly an opportunity exists with the challenge the Hoosiers present. A win would all but wrap up a Gophers bid, but another loss would ramp the pressure up another notch. Minnesota’s last three games are against Big Ten bottom-feeders Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue; drop the Indiana game but take those last three and Tubby and company would post a 9-9 record in the toughest conference in America – another sure ticket to the Dance. But fail to convert against IU and slip up on the road versus either Nebraska or Purdue, and you better believe there will be some heat on the Gophers to pick up at least one win at the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago.
Minnesota has not exactly made a habit of finishing strong in the Tubby Smith era, but odds are the postseason still awaits these Gophers. A bid would be a worthy accomplishment for a program lacking too significant a March history (1997 and the Fighting Bobby Jacksons aside), but the last two months have made early-January expectations look foolish. There’s still time for the Gophers to right the ship (hello, Tuesday night!), but it appears that this take-no-prisoners Big Ten has exposed a January pretender.