The Minnesota Golden Gophers are currently 11-1, ranked 14th in field goal percentage (50%), and scoring an average of 71.1 points per game despite the fact that their leading scorer, and the apparent heart and soul of the Gopher team, is finished for the season (and likely finished at Minnesota) because of a torn ACL, but more on that later. Minnesota has won the last 6 games since their star was injured and, as is the case with Minnesota seemingly every season, appears to be in an excellent position to enter conference play. They're unranked.
I've said before that most teams from the major conferences work up to conference play with easier opponents, during which time they establish team chemistry, settle on rotations, and develop some confidence. Most teams will also schedule several games against traditionally challenging opponents as well, though, in order to compare themselves to more talented teams, challenge themselves, and prepare themselves for the type of play they will face in their conference and when/if they play in March. Minnesota is one of two Big Ten teams to play no ranked opponents prior to the Big Ten season, which is why they are still unranked.
This isn't unusual for Minnesota. Since Tubby Smith took over as head coach in 2007, there's been a distinctive pattern and relationship between their pre-conference and conference play. Take a look at their non-conference results, the results for their first 12 conference games, and their yearlong results:
2007-2008 Non-Conference: 11-1 Conference: 5-7 Final Results: 20-14 Tournament: No
2008-2009 Non-Conference: 12-0 Conference: 7-5 Final Results: 22-11Tournament: Yes
2009-2010 Non-Conference: 9-3 Conference: 5-7 Final Results: 21-14 Tournament: Yes
2010-2011 Non-Conference: 11-1 Conference: 5-7 Final Results: 17-14 Tournament: No
2011-2012 Non-Conference: 11-1
Minnesota has a history of scheduling easy non-conference games only to falter when conference play begins. They have yet to win a game in the NCAA tournament under Tubby Smith. Unfortunately for Minnesota, history tends to repeat itself and seems to be on track to do so again this year.
Adding to Minnesota's woes is the injury of Trevor Mbakwe. Mbakwe averaged 15.3 points and 8.7 rebounds last season, making 2nd team all Big Ten. This year, he was averaging 28.7 minutes, a team high 14.0 ppg, and a team high 9.1 rpg before he tore his right ACL in the Gophers' one loss to Dayton. He's set to undergo ACL surgery, which will keep him out for the remainder to the season and, as a 5th year senior academically, effectively end his college basketball career. The Gophers have not spiraled down since the loss of Mbakwe, as many analysts expected, but, for the Gophers, the worst (ie, most difficult competition) is yet to come. If they continue on the path they are currently on and find someone to replace Mbakwe, Minnesota could be a threat to the Big Ten this season. If they follow their usual pattern, they'll be fighting to simply make it to March.
Bob Lanier is a Hall of Fame NBA player for both the Milwaukee Bucks and the Detroit Pistons, the two teams that I consistently root for (my allegiance for other teams depends on whose playing for them. At the moment, in addition to those two, I support the Mavericks, the Suns, and anyone who plays the Heat. In case you were at all interested). Lanier played college basketball at St. Bonaventure University in New York, was drafted by the Pistons in 1970, and traded to the Bucks in 1980, where he remained until he retired in 1984. He's an 8x NBA All-Star, the NBA All-Star game MVP in 1974, and the winner of the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, an award for outstanding service to the community, in 1970. His #16 jersey is retired by both teams he played with.
Have a good one!
The Sports Nerd