When you're a team trying to make your mark and remain on the national scene, the games against mediocre opponents count just as much as the showdowns with ranked foes. And in the end, winning is what matters, no matter how you do it.
The surprising 14-1 Minnesota Golden Gophers did just that on Thursday night by overcoming a 13-point deficit to defeat Iowa 52-49 in a classic Big Ten-style game.
Minnesota, currently ranked No. 19, scored just 20 points in the first half. But the Gophers got enough offense in the second half to gain the advantage on the heels of a stingy defense. This was Minnesota's first conference road game of the season, and one they needed to stay at the top of the Big Ten standings after early action.
Minnesota now stands in a three-way tie for third place in the Big Ten at 2-1, with their only loss coming to conference heavyweight Michigan State. While the Gophers also went undefeated in non-conference play, their only quality win came against Louisville, a team who has been upset numerous times already this season.
The turning point of Thursday night's game was when Minnesota coach Tubby Smith moved to a zone defense after his team got down 23-10. Iowa, the Big Ten's leader in three-point shooting, struggled to find open looks against the zone and allowed the Gophers to chip away at the lead.
Aside from Minnesota, only three other ranked teams were in action on Thursday night. Each had easy victories. No. 20-ranked Butler beat Wright State by a score of 64-48, No. 18-ranked Xavier defeated Saint Louis by a score of 70-44, and No. 16-ranked Arizona State pummeled Oregon State 69-38.
The 38 points allowed by the Sun Devils was their lowest point total given up to a conference opponent in their entire 31-year history in the Pac-10 conference.
There was plenty of other Pac-10 action for the night as well. Stanford lost their second straight game after beginning the season 11-0. The Cardinal lost to Washington by a score of 84-83. The Huskies won on a tip-in from Jon Brockman (who had 19 points in the game) with 4.6 seconds remaining and are now 11-3 on the season and 2-0 in the Pac-10.
Arizona also notched their first Pac-10 conference victory of the season by defeating Oregon by a score of 67-52. The Wildcats are 10-5 on the season and 1-2 on the season, and look to be in danger of breaking their streak of 24 consecutive NCAA Tournaments made.
California, one of the big surprises of the season, moved to 3-0 in the Pac-10 with a 57-50 road victory over Washington State. Cal has other impressive Pac-10 victories over Arizona and Arizona State, and is now 14-2 on the season.
Upset of the Day
The biggest upset of the day came in the Sun Belt Conference, where Florida International defeated Western Kentucky by a score of 81-79. Western Kentucky is coming off a Sweet 16 appearance in last year's NCAA Tournament and has already notched several impressive victories this season, including being the first to defeat Louisville, a top five team at the time.
Western Kentucky also entered the game 3-0 in the Sun Belt Conference, while Florida Atlantic was the opposite at 0-3.
The best conference record in the Sun Belt Conference now belongs to Middle Tennessee State, who moved to 4-0 with a comeback victory over Florida Atlantic. Middle Tennessee State took their first lead of the game with 2:14 left in the game and needed a layup with 2.4 seconds left to seal the two-point victory against a team now 0-4 in the conference.
Middle Tennessee State defeated South Alabama, who also made the NCAA Tournament a year ago, in the semifinals of the conference tournament a year ago before losing to Western Kentucky in the finals. The three teams look like they will be the main challengers for the conference's automatic berth in the tournament again this year.
Team to Look Out for
Remember the team that knocked out Duke in the first round two years ago and then went to overtime with Pittsburgh in the second round?
Virginia Commonwealth is a perennial threat in the CAA and is led by Eric Maynor's 23.1 points per game for the season. Maynor is the one who sank the shot to defeat Duke two years ago.
Virginia Commonwealth blew out Drexel by a score of 75-46 on Thursday night, using a 40-18 advantage in the second half. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the victory was that Maynor had only eight points in the effort, proving the Rams have other players capable of carrying the load.
VCU is now 10-5 on the season and 3-1 in the CAA. They and George Mason, another team that has enjoyed some NCAA Tournament success, are the front-runners to win the CAA's automatic bid this season.