Bubble Watch: 5 Reasons Minnesota Will Make NCAA Tournament
5 Reasons Minnesota Golden Gophers Will Make The Tournament
The Minnesota Golden Gophers are currently 16-9 and in seventh place in the best conference in all of basketball, the Big 10. They already have a few signature wins this year, but they also have their fair share of head-shaking losses as well.
They recently suffered an eight-point loss to the Wisconsin Badgers in Madison, but the season series is tied at one win apiece as the Gophers beat the Badgers at home by 13 points last month. Just a week before their upset win over the then ninth-ranked Badgers, the Gophers upset the 11th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes by 10 points in The Barn -- Minnesota’s home court -- and appeared to be on their way to breaking into the top 25.
A three-game conference losing streak hurt those chances, but now they have a 5-7 conference record and appear to be on track to make it to the big dance come March. The Big 10 is the premier conference in college basketball with five teams currently ranked, and at this moment there could be a case made for seven or eight of the conference’s top teams to make the tournament.
What Richard Pitino is doing in his first season as the Gophers’ head coach is amazing considering this team graduated both Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams this past summer, and have three new starters, two of which are first-year transfers. The Gophers have proven they can contend with the best, and going forward there are five specific reasons they will make the big dance.
Force Opponents To Play Small
The Gophers routinely start four guards and one center, forcing opposing teams to adjust their starting lineup as well. The Gophers have four guards averaging double figures in the point column, two of which are transfers and in their first season with the team. Their strength lies behind the three-point arc, where they shoot 35 percent as a team with Deandre Mathieu leading the way with a 46-percent mark. Mathieu is more of a creative playmaker on the drive, but more on that later when I touch on his recent emergence in key games.
Andre Hollins Is Back
Andre Hollins broke out as the Gophers' premier scorer last season when he averaged 14 points per game and had a season-high of 41 against the Memphis Tigers. Hollins suffered an ankle sprain against the Badgers when the Gophers completed the upset last month, and after two lackluster performances since return, he finally looked like his old self when he shot 66 percent from three and totaled 22 points against the Badgers this past Thursday.
Recent Emergence Of Deandre Mathieu
When Andre Hollins went down with his ankle injury, it was Deandre Mathieu who stepped up and took over as the team’s offensive playmaker. Mathieu ranks fourth in the conference in assists, and has scored in double figures in four of his last six games. Although just 5-foot-9, Mathieu is best when driving to the hoop, and often draws contact leading him to the free-throw line where he shoots 80 percent on the year. If Mathieu can stay aggressive when Hollins is on the court, this Gophers team could posses one of the best one-two guard combos in the entire nation.
Vastly Underrated Frontcourt
Although their depth at the guard position is impressive, the Gophers have one of the conference's most underrated frontcourts as well. Elliot Eliason is second in the conference in rebounding and shot blocking, but he may not even be the team’s best all-around center. Maurice Walker dropped some much-needed weight during the offseason, and now at a slimmed down 250 pounds, he’s able to be aggressive in the post and make a real difference when given the chance. This team likes to play small, but if forced they can bully a team down low with both Eliason and Walker on the court.
Richard Pitino Knows What He's Doing
New head coach Richard Pitino was groomed by his father Rick Pitino at Louisville and Billy Donovan at Florida before becoming the head coach of the FIU Panthers. He was given his first opportunity to be a head coach by the Panthers last season, and led them to a 18-14 record before agreeing to come to Minnesota this past offseason. He’s coached under some of the smartest basketball minds in the country, and with a 34-23 career record, it’s clear he has a bright future ahead of him.