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Big Ten Men’s Basketball Mid Season Check-In: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Is the Ben Johnson era turning a corner or is this a mirage?

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been slipping a bit on getting these out as I’ve been recovering from the flu. Yes, robots get the flu. I’ll try to knock the rest of these out quickly before it’s no longer midseason and it’s no longer mid-season.

Today we get to take a look at everyone’s predicted bottom feeder: the Minnesota Golden Gophers. A new look roster has walked through a paper thin non-conference slate and come out the other side looking semi-competitive in the Big Ten. Is this Ben Johnson turning a corner or does the Big Ten truly suck this season?

Resume

Record: 12-3 (3-1)

Torvik: 84, KenPom: 78, Haslam: 61, NET: 88, AP: No Votes, Coaches: No Votes

*NOTE: we are listing Torvik rankings for opponents. This is because a) NET rankings suck in December and you really shouldn’t pay attention to them until February and b) Torvik is completely free (KenPom is not) and we prefer using Torvik to Haslam. Numbers as of January 9.

Wins: Nebraska (54), @Michigan (70), Maryland (112), Maine (244), New Orleans (281), UTSA (282), Florida Gulf Coast (294), USC Upstate (296), Ball State (300), Bethune Cookman (311), Arkansas Pine Bluff (346)

Losses: @Ohio State (26), N-San Francisco (64), Missouri (121)

Minnesota v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

The Gophers played a cowardly non-conference schedule. There is nothing worth talking about in terms of resume wins as they collected nine Quad 4 wins and lost their other two games. The good news however is that they won those nine games against sub 200 competition and didn’t infect the conference like Northwestern or Penn State.

The Missouri game offered an opportunity for Minnesota to collect a semi-decent win (although Mizzou isn’t very good this season), but the Gophers blew a 20 point lead with 11:25 remaining in a game that highlighted all the worst qualities of Ben Johnson’s coaching ability. Since then however, Minnesota has beaten a quality Nebraska program, dispatched Maryland, and even collected a conference road win against Michigan. The Gophers look up at the standings and find themselves tied for second place in the conference.

On pace for: NIT or CBI?

Minnesota v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

I can’t overstate how bad Minnesota’s non-conference resume is. Torvik gives them just a 0.9% chance of getting an NCAA tournament bid this season and half of that chance involves them winning the conference tournament. Beating Maryland and Michigan isn’t the stuff of NCAA resume building this season, but if the Gophers can rack up another 10 conference wins to get to 13-7 a NCAA bid isn’t out of the question. That’s a tall order when you haven’t played any games against Purdue, Wisconsin, or Illinois yet though. The NIT or CBI seems more likely depending on where exactly in the Big Ten pecking order the Gophers end up.

Biggest Surprises

NCAA Basketball: New Orleans at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

BoilerUp89: The Gophers had really improved their shooting numbers from last season. They’ve shot a capable 36% from three and a truly excellent 57.3% from two. Those numbers may come down somewhat against tougher competition but part of the reason the Gophers are shooting so well is their ball movement and ability to share the basketball. The Gophers have the country’s second best assist rate and point guard Elijah Hawkins has been a double-double threat with points and assists nearly every game.

WSR: Yeah, it’s backcourt play. The big difference between two years ago and last year was being able to count on Payton Willis to be serviceable running the offense. Hawkins has been even better, and this team can even grab a rebound!

Biggest Disappointments

NCAA Basketball: Indiana - Purdue at Minnesota
Cam Christie should have been playing more early in the season
Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

BoilerUp89: Compared to preseason expectations, it’s hard to find too much to be truly disappointed about. I’m still disappointed that the non-conference schedule doesn’t give the Gophers a realistic path to a longshot at-large NCAA bid. Sure, it wasn’t likely but they didn’t even try. On the court, I’ve been most disappointing in some of the lineup decisions but those seem to have been sorted out the past five or so games.

WSR: Losing to Mizzou. That collapse feels worse and worse all the time.

Reasons for Optimism

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 04 Minnesota at Michigan Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

BoilerUp89: If you are looking for optimism this season, I don’t have any past the fact that the Big Ten is in fact weak this season. This program has improved to okay, but that doesn’t mean they are good. I don’t really think that’s enough for a NCAA bid but don’t forget to just enjoy competitive basketball Gopher fans. It’s been awhile since the Gophers had a .500 season. If you are looking for optimism about the Ben Johnson era, the top 7 players in the Gophers rotation can return next season. With a little bit of offseason improvement and maybe the addition of one more player from the portal, the Gophers could be in position to make a return to the NCAA next season.

WSR: We’ve already passed last year’s total for conference wins, and we’re just one away from 2021-22’s.

Reasons for Concern

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 08 Big Ten Tournament
practice, practice, practice
Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

BoilerUp89: This could all be a mirage. Outside of the home win against Nebraska, the record is really empty. The rate stats look mostly nice, but have been generated against sub par competition. If we suspend our disbelief in the Gophers ability to continue shooting field goals at the season long rates, the Gophers need to work on eliminating some of their turnovers and practice free throws. The team wide 68.8% is unacceptably bad and will cost the Gophers a game or two this season. A lot of that is Payne, but he’s not the only one that has struggled from the charity stripe.

WSR: Yeah, it’s FT shooting. I also worry if we’re too dependent on Dawson Garcia, because we’ve already had him miss a little stretch due to injury (Yes, I know we still beat Nebrasketball without him, and yes I know Nebrasketball just beat Purdue last night. ANYWAY...)

Remaining Schedule

Home: Iowa (62), Wisconsin (14), Northwestern (51), Michigan State (10), Rutgers (102), Ohio State (26), Penn State (110), Indiana (97)

Away: Indiana (97), Michigan State (10), Penn State (110), Iowa (62), Purdue (2), Nebraska (54), Illinois (9), Northwestern (51)

BoilerUp89: Bring on the NIT! Minnesota gets single plays against Purdue and Illinois on the road. They weren’t likely to win those games at home anyway (and Purdue fans will be happy to avoid Minneapolis) and get more winnable competition in the Barn instead. That’s important for a team trying to string together victories and try to get a NIT bid. A single game against rival Wisconsin isn’t the worst thing either especially since it comes at home. I’m not a big believer in Ben Johnson, but when it comes to trying to build program momentum with recruiting, the Gophers couldn’t have asked for an easier schedule. The Gophers need to show enough promise this season to build towards something next year.

WSR: I just want to be less embarrassed. Play hard, beat bad teams (which, looking around the B1G...), and don’t do anything stupid off the court. I want to believe that Ben Johnson could still work out, but I really need to see it this year.

Poll

The Gophers will

This poll is closed

  • 21%
    make the NCAA surprising us all
    (30 votes)
  • 52%
    N-I-T!
    (73 votes)
  • 15%
    CBI or whatever it’s called
    (21 votes)
  • 10%
    consider firing Ben Johnson
    (14 votes)
138 votes total Vote Now

Poll

What’s your opinion on the long term viability of Ben Johnson?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    He is the answer
    (34 votes)
  • 41%
    He might eke out a single NCAA tournament bid next year before being shown the door a few years later
    (53 votes)
  • 19%
    He lasts one more year
    (25 votes)
  • 12%
    This isn’t the guy
    (16 votes)
128 votes total Vote Now