After watching the Minnesota Golden Gophers squeeze out a 76-67 victory over the North Dakota Fighting Hawks, I had to text my buddy Luke Vanderlinde who might be the biggest fan that I know.
My text: I kind of like this team.
His candid response: The team that is beating small conference opponents by single digits?
My response could only be: Fair point.
At that point, the Gophers had barely beaten Loyola Marymount and the Fighting Hawks to move to 4-0 on the season. After an overtime thriller against Boston College and getting trounced by 27 points against Illinois, Minnesota had stumbled their way to a 7-1 record.
On the horizon was a matchup with the 4th best team in the country – the Iowa Hawkeyes and All-American Luke Garza. After a strong first half, the Gophers took a 38-33 lead into halftime.
In the second half, the Hawkeyes came out ready to play. After grinding out long offensive possessions and moving the ball in flow on offense, Iowa had a 80-73 lead with just 44 seconds to go. The game definitely seemed over despite a solid effort by Minnesota. It was going to be a decent moral victory. I’ll be completely honest, I even turned off the TV at this point.
A few made free throws, a Marcus Carr 3-pointer and some missed free throws by Iowa gave Minnesota a chance and I tuned back in. Joe Toussaint of Iowa missed his free throw with 14 seconds left up 83-80.
The ball was in Carr’s hands and there was no question he was going to take the final shot. After dribbling to his left at the top of the key, he spun and dribbled to his right using a ball screen and swished a slight fadeaway game tying 3-pointer.
Overtime began with a pick and pop 3-pointer by Brandon Johnson. Three more 3-pointers later, Johnson led the Gophers to a huge 102-95 upset. Johnson finished the night 8-9 from beyond the arc, tying a Gopher record for 3-pointers in a game.
The reason I liked the team so many weeks ago was the chemistry that had yet to fully form and they were no doubt a talented group. Minnesota is relying on a lot of new faces this season. Starting center Liam Robbins is a junior transfer from Drake, starting guard Both Gach (Austin, MN native) is a junior transfer from Utah, Johnson is a graduate transfer from Western Michigan, and Jamal Mashburn Jr. is just a freshman.
These new faces have provided a tremendous boost to the roster and their chemistry and team identity is only still beginning to grow and strengthen. Marcus Carr is a potential NCAA Player of the Year candidate, averaging 24 points and 6.1 assists per game while shooting 48% and 40% from the field and 3-point line respectively.
Four of the next five highest scoring players are those new faces.
With the win over Iowa, the Gophers jumped to being ranked 21st in the nation. As if upsetting the 4th team in the country wasn’t enough, Minnesota decided to trounce the 17th ranked Michigan State Spartans and Tom Izzo. The Gophers held MSU to just 16 first half points, going on to win 81-56. This was the biggest victory over MSU in Minnesota history and the lowest opponent shooting percentage during the Pitino era.
I truly wish The Barn had been loaded up to the brim with crazy fans to watch these past two wins.
With two big wins over ranked opponents comes more difficult matchups, as it is only the 2nd time ever where nine teams from the same conference are ranked in the top 25. These include Wisconsin (6), Iowa (10), Rutgers (14), Illinois (15), Michigan (16), Michigan State (17), Northwestern (19), Minnesota (21) and Ohio State (25).
While Minnesota’s ranking is warranted and almost certainly will go up to the low to mid-teens, they continue their difficult path, as matchups with five ranked opponents loom.
However, the Gophers are 9-1 (2-1 Big10) and are looking like a team that has to be taken seriously in the Big10 Title race. If Minnesota can get through that stretch 2-3 to have a record of 11-4, only four of the final 12 games come against ranked opponents.
I can’t exactly put my finger on it. It might be Carr’s isolation heroics that draw me in or Robbins dominating defensive presence at the paint or the composed nature that Gach brings to both sides of the ball… or maybe even it’s Johnson’s magical 8-9 3-point barrage.
The basketball isn’t always pretty but I’ve been completely sucked in. Considering most rankings had the Gophers at 10th in the Big10 in the preseason, this was certainly an unexpected beginning and Minnesota has quickly become must watch TV for any basketball fan.
The saddest part of this is that the Dinkytown McDonald’s won’t be there to celebrate when the NCAA Championship parade runs through the University of Minnesota.