In most preseason polls, Minnesota was the fifth highest ranked team in the Big Ten behind Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Michigan.
If the Gophers were going to emerge from the crowded field to have an opportunity to hoist the Big Ten Title Championship banner, they would need to pull an early season upset win over the Spartans or Boilermakers. Additionally, the Gophers would need to avoid an early upset themselves to avoid having too high of a hill to climb to the top.
The Big Ten season started well for the Gophers as they held serve at home against Penn State and trounced the young Hawkeyes in Iowa City to get off to a quick 2-0 start.
The Gophers were a confident squad going into the toughest stretch of their schedule. Minnesota’s next three games were against Purdue in West Lafayette, Ohio State at home and Michigan State in East Lansing. If the Gophers could pull off an upset on the road and get a win at home, Minnesota would be in a solid position to likely contend for the outright title for the remainder of the season.
Unfortunately, Minnesota could not secure an early season upset on the road over either the Boilermakers or Spartans. The Gophers however took care of business against the Buckeyes with a 73-62 win.
Minnesota’s next game was on the road against Indiana. The game against the Hoosiers was the classic trap game of the season as it was sandwiched between the away and home games with Michigan State.
The Gophers could not afford to commiserate about the loss, nor could they look ahead to the rematch at home.
While Indiana is not as talented or deep as Minnesota, coach Tubby Smith undoubtedly impressed upon his squad that the Hoosiers should not be underestimated as they had previously defeated Pittsburgh 74-64 on a neutral site and Michigan 71-65 at home.
The Gophers did not get the message. Minnesota came out flat and Indiana took advantage racing out to a 14 point lead in first half and 15 point lead in the second half.
The Gophers, to their credit, battled back to take the game into overtime where Devoe Joseph hit two three points to start the extra period. Minnesota however ran out of gas and lost 81-78 as they were only able to score on two free throws in the last 3:22 of the game.
Minnesota had little time to wallow in the loss as they received news that starting point guard Al Nolen was being suspended from the team after being declared academically ineligible.
Nolen is one of the best perimeter defender’s in the Big Ten, and his 3:1 assist to turnover ratio places him among the elite point guards in the nation in taking care of the basketball. Which Gopher would step up to replace Nolen’s defensive presence and leadership in running the team?
Coach Smith needed to have the Gophers come out strong against the Spartans if they were to beat Michigan State. This time, Minnesota got the message from their coach, and they played with intensity from the opening tip racing out to a 12-3 lead.
The Gophers got solid play from seniors Damian Johnson and Lawrence Westbrook.
Johnson played like a man possessed on the defensive end blocking five shots. Johnson wasn’t satisfied to simply swat away shots as he also came up with three steals.
Westbrook scored 16 points and was two out of four from beyond the arc. More importantly, Westbrook had only one turnover while dishing out four assists.
Joseph also had a solid game filling in for Nolen at the point dishing out seven assists. Joseph was most impressive however in creating his own shot on the way to scoring 16 points on six for ten shooting.
Minnesota appeared to be on their way to an upset win as they held a 55-45 lead with nine minutes to go.
Unfortunately, the ball stopped moving around the perimeter and easy interior shots became non-existent. The Gophers would not score on successive possessions for the rest of the game.
The Spartans slowed crawled back into the game as the Gophers became stagnant on the offensive end.
The Gophers clung to a two point lead in the final minute. The Gophers made several passes around the perimeter before the ball landed in the hands of Westbrook.
As the shot clock was winding down, Westbrook launched a three point shot from the top of the key. The shot rattled around in the rim but the ball came out.
The Spartans did not fail to take advantage of their opportunity.
Kalin Lucas, last year’s Big Ten player of the year, launched a three point shot off the dribble from the top of the key. The shot hit nothing but the bottom of the net.
Adding injury to insult, Lucas hit the shot while Westbrook was guarding him.
The Gophers now have four losses and are in seventh place in the Big Ten. In order to catch the Spartans to win the Big Ten title, the Gophers would need to pass six teams in the Big Ten and make up five games on Michigan State.
Minnesota has not been mathematically eliminated from winning the Big Ten title; however, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which the Gophers can become Big Ten champions.
Coach Tubby Smith needs to regroup the troops and focus on securing enough wins to be awarded an NCAA tournament bid.
While the dream of a Big Ten title is likely gone, Minnesota can still make the dream of a deep run in the NCAA tournament a reality.