Coming off a back-and-forth win against Michigan St and a slow start against Northwestern, the Golden Gophers have started the Big Ten season 2-0. The team has shown great poise coupled with outstanding defensive play to prove that they have indeed earned their top 10 ranking in the polls. "Mustache Man" Tubby Smith has put together quite a squad at the University of Minnesota.
Yes the Gophers are flying high right now and seem ready to roll into the thick of the Big Ten schedule. However, many challenges loom on the near horizon.
The next 10 days will separate the boys from the men as the Gophers face their toughest stretch this season. Minnesota will be on the road to face 12th-ranked Illinois (who is coming off a home win against Ohio State) and fifth-ranked Indiana before they come home to host second-ranked Michigan.
This will not even come remotely close to resembling a cake walk.
If Minnesota can play their game and take the crowd out early down at Assembly Hall against the Illini, this is a matchup they can definitely win. The key to this game will be shutting down Illinois' senior guard Brandon Paul. Expect Austin Hollins to draw the assignment of holding Paul in check while the rest of the team cracks down on the defensive end.
At the end of the day, I believe this is a game the Gophers should win, just don't expect it to be pretty.
How will the Gophers fair during this stretch?
Three short days later, Tubby Smith and the Golden Gophers will be in Bloomington, IN to take on Cody Zeller and the Hoosiers. While Indiana hasn't competed against a large field of top-tier teams this season, they have still been dominant in most of their outings. The Gophers will be up against what is possibly their toughest challenge offensively all season.
It will be tough sledding for the Gophers down at Indiana, but if they can pull of this upset, it will give them a whole lot of steam moving forward this season.
Back home, five days after their contest against the Hoosiers, Minnesota will host Michigan in what will be another extremely difficult matchup. The Gophers will need to again be rock solid on defense, especially around the perimeter, in order to contain another high-powered offense. The home crowd will be rocking at Williams Arena for this tilt; hopefully it will be enough to put the Gophers over the top.
All in all, this will not be an ice cream social. This will be some of the finest basketball the Big Ten has to offer this year. I'd be extremely happy with a 2-1 record after these three games, but obviously I'll be assuming a 3-0 record as a loyal fan. What expectations do you have for the Minnesota Golden Gophers through this daunting stretch?
Rankings Courtesy of ESPN.COM