Williams Arena will surely be rocking this winter, as the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team has given Gopher fans reason to be excited. The men’s team is off to an impressive 6-2 start looking the part of a Big Ten contender. Hopefully, the hot start will translate well as conference play begins. If so, at the end of the regular season fans can expect the team will get the call on Selection Sunday and have a shot at the national championship.
Things could not have been worse for the men’s team last season. After a 13-3 start and ranking 12 in the nation, the team completely collapsed. By the time the season ended, the Gophers were in 11th place in the 14 team Big Ten Conference, finishing with an overall record of 15-17 and a conference record of 4-14. In the end-of-season conference tournament, the Gophers lost to Rutgers in the first round.
To be fair, their season was plagued by injuries and off-court issues. During preseason practices, the Gophers lost key bench player Eric Curry to a torn ACL. Additionally, Amir Coffey, who was a part of the Big Ten all-freshman team the year before, missed most of conference play due to a shoulder injury. As if those injuries weren’t enough, starters Dupree McBrayer and Nate Mason also struggled to stay on the court with various nagging injuries. Lastly, Reggie Lynch, who was named the Big Ten defensive player of the year during the 2016-17 season, was suspended and subsequently expelled from the university after a sexual assault allegation surfaced. Overall, the season was a complete disaster, but that was last year.
This year things are looking up for the team. Along with beating a few lower tier Division I programs, the Gophers beat good teams from other major conferences. In winning the TCL Vancouver Showcase, the Gopher sbeat Texas A&M, who made a run to the Sweet Sixteen last year, and Washington, who are predicted to finish third in the PAC-12 Conference and started the season ranked in the top 25. Last week they also beat Oklahoma State in the inaugural U.S. Bank Stadium Classic. Meanwhile, the Gophers’ mere two lossses came on the road in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge against Boston College and against a 19-ranked Ohio State. Certainly, at the end of the year, a weak non-conference schedule should not hamper the prospects of the Gophers in getting a bid to the NCAA tournament.
Good team play has been the key to the team’s success. Jordan Murphy who played well last season, proved to be a dominant player early this season. In the team’s first six games, he leads the nation in rebounding by averaging 12.7 boards per game which matches his team’s lead of 15.7 points and 3.4 assists. Furthermore, Coffey and McBrayer, back, healthy and in the starting lineup, have complimented Murphy well. Freshmen Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur have also both contributed in their first seasons. Oturu proves to be a solid shot- blocking post defender, while Kalscheur shows he is a great three-point shooter. In the game against Washington, Kalscheur knocked down a last-second 3 to give the Gophers the win.
Conference play certainly will not be easy, as non-conference results show that the Big Ten may be the toughest conference in the country. Currently, seven Big Ten teams are ranked in the top 25, with three more, one being the Gophers, sitting right outside of the rankings. Both Michigan, coming off a trip to the National Championship game, and Michigan State are ranked in the top 10 and like Final Four contenders. Wisconsin also looks to be the real deal, beating 14 ranked Iowa in Iowa City this past week. If the Gophers are to compete during conference play, it is paramount that they win on their home court. However, the team’s good start should result in a full and supportive student section, hopefully helping them earn a trip to the 2019 NCAA tournament.