After looking flat in road losses to Nebraska and Arkansas and a one-point home win over sub-par Drake, the Gophers rebounded a bit last week. Following a sluggish first half, Minnesota pulled away from Oral Roberts in a 14-point win, then dismantled Florida Atlantic two days later, 95-60. Neither of those teams figures to be particularly good this season, so it’s tough to glean too much from those games. But there were a few positive signs for the Gophers.
The biggest positive, by far, is what didn’t happen. Early in the second half, star senior point guard Nate Mason got his foot tangled with an FAU player and went down in a heap. Mason grabbed the back of his foot, and couldn’t put weight on it as he was carried off the floor in a hushed Williams Arena. It sure looked like it was a serious injury, and Richard Pitino said earlier this week there was fear it was a torn Achilles tendon, the same injury that sidelined Akeem Springs in last year’s Big Ten tournament.
“But it was really just kind of like the back part of his ankle,” Pitino told reporters. “Fortunately, it’s nothing too serious.”
Minnesota dodged a bullet there. A major injury to Mason would have drastically changed the season’s outlook, and because he’s played too many games to qualify for a medical redshirt, Mason’s college career would likely be over. Instead, the hope for Minnesota is that he can return relatively quickly. The degree to which the injury impacts Mason’s play when he does return will be worth monitoring in the weeks ahead.
Aside from the injury scare, the Gophers showed improvement last week at defending the 3-point shot, both in opponent attempts and makes. On the season, the Gophers are allowing their opponents to shoot 21.8 3-pointers per game, which accounts for 34% of their opponents’ overall shots per game. That’s a really high ratio, and it’s particularly impactful to the Gophers because their 3-point defense hasn’t been good; they’ve allowed opponents to hit 37.4% of their threes, ranking 265 in the nation.
Oral Roberts and FAU combined to go 10-for-34 behind the arc against Minnesota (29.4%). Further, only 25.7% of their shots were threes. The Gophers showed an increased ability to limit both attempted and made threes in those two games. There’s a caveat, though. Neither Oral Roberts nor FAU are strong 3-point shooting teams. Both rank near the bottom of Division 1 in 3-point attempts and makes. It’s tough to say, then, whether the Gophers were truly demonstrating improvement in their 3-point defense, or whether it was more a result of their opponents’ deficiencies. Regardless, it’s a huge area of concern for Minnesota, and something in which they’ll need to see sustained progress heading into Big Ten play.
Another reason for optimism in last week’s games is improved bench play. Aside from Jordan Murphy’s phenomenal start, Minnesota’s lack of depth has been perhaps the dominant theme of the season so far, and Pitino’s been searching for a usable rotation throughout the first two months of the year. Against Oral Roberts and FAU, Michael Hurt had perhaps the best two games of his career.
Hurt, inserted into the starting lineup after Dupree McBrayer was sidelined with a flare up of the leg injury he sustained in the offseason, performed well. In 26.5 minutes, he averaged 9 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2 assists per game. Technically, he put up those numbers as a starter, but given that Hurt typically comes off the bench, it can be taken as a good sign for the state of the Gophers’ reserves. (Note: If McBrayer’s injury is serious and it causes him to miss more time, that’s a major loss for Minnesota. For now, we’ll take Pitino’s word that he’s day-to-day).
Isaiah Washington also continues to show improvement. He put up a fairly impressive stat line against FAU, with 7 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 turnover in 16 minutes. That came on the heels of a 12-point, 4-assist performance against Oral Roberts. Washington still needs to improve his scoring efficiency–he went 6-for-16 in those two games and is shooting 36% overall and 14% behind the arc—but his turnovers are way down since the Miami game and he seems to be playing a bit more under control. If Mason or McBrayer is out for an extended period of time, he’ll have to play starters’ minutes while acclimating quickly to the physicality of Big Ten basketball. Speaking of the Big Ten…
Nonconference play is finishing up this week, and it hasn’t been kind to the Big Ten. Entering the season, the conference had four teams—Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Purdue—ranked in the AP top 25. Three more teams—Wisconsin, Maryland and Michigan—received votes in the preseason poll. Currently, only Michigan State and Purdue are ranked, with Minnesota and Michigan each receiving a single vote. Shockingly, there are only four teams with a top 50 RPI right now. Here’s a quick look at how each team has performed in the nonconference season (plus the first two conference games that occurred in early December), along with their RPI.
Michigan State (9 RPI): Tom Izzo’s squad is the clear favorite to win the conference, and they’ve been outstanding through the first two months. Their only loss came to (RPI No. 1) Duke, and they have wins over (4) North Carolina and (69) Notre Dame.
Purdue (12): Outside of a bad loss to Western Kentucky, Purdue’s been just as good as Michigan State. They already have six RPI top 100 wins, and their only other loss came in overtime to (7) Tennessee.
Michigan (35): The Wolverines (10-3) are perhaps the one conference team that’s exceeded expectations so far. They have top 100 wins over (50) Texas, (56) UCLA and (93) VCU, and their only real blemish is a loss to LSU.
Minnesota (47): Only the setback to Nebraska currently looks like a “bad” loss. The Gophers have top-50 wins over (48) Providence and (27) Alabama, and top 50 losses to (10) Arkansas and (30) Miami. Minnesota will face Purdue twice this season; if they want to make things interesting in the Big Ten, they’ll probably have to win at least one of those games.
Ohio State (62): The Buckeyes are still a bit of an unknown. They’ve played a tough schedule, with three of their four losses coming against top 50 teams, and the other to last year’s national runner-up, Gonzaga. Only a win over Michigan jumps out on their resume.
Northwestern (66): Perhaps they’re suffering from a bit of a hangover after last year’s storybook season, but the Wildcats have been among the conference’s biggest disappointments. They only have one top 100 win (over No. 96 La Salle), and an overall record of 8-5. They’ll need to do damage in the conference to make a return trip to the tournament.
Maryland (67): Maryland’s still feeling the loss of star point guard Melo Trimble. With a win over (37) Butler and no bad losses, though, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the Terrapins. Probably a bubble team this year.
Nebraska (74): The Cornhuskers best–and only top 50–win came against the Gophers. At 9-5, they’re in a similar boat as Northwestern heading into January, but aren’t seen by most as a potential tournament team.
Penn State (95): They’re 10-4, yes, but their best win came against (131) Pittsburgh. The NIT seems like a realistic landing point this year.
Wisconsin (97): Yikes. It’s been a disastrous first two months for the Badgers. They have no good wins and an overall record of 6-7. It’s been a long time since Wisconsin was this down.
Indiana (107): Like Wisconsin, Indiana is another top-notch program that seems destined for a sub-par year. Already, they have losses to Indiana State and Fort Wayne, and nary a top 50 win.
Illinois (135): They just shocked (14) Missouri. Before that, though, they lost to (112) UNLV and (147) Wake Forest, among others.
Iowa (152): At 8-6 and without a top 50 win, the Hawkeyes don’t look like a big threat this season.
Rutgers (161): 9-4 with a win over (16) Seton Hall certainly qualifies as progress for the Scarlet Knights. Unfortunately for them, they just lost to (195) Stony Brook.