In front of a sellout crowd of 14,265 at The Barn, the Gophers defeated Michigan State in the regular season for the first time in Tubby Smith’s coaching career. They had been 0-10 against the Spartans before Monday’s game. In a back and forth game, Minnesota used an 18-2 run in the final 7:15 to pick up its first Bit Ten opener win since 2009. The Gophers are now 13-1 and a Top Ten team in the nation. It might be time to start considering them a contender.
Minnesota is 25th in the nation in rebounds per game and 5th on the O-boards. The are also in the top ten in blocks per game (7th with 0.4 per game) and rank 13th in the nation in steals (10.07 per game). Tubby has his team playing the tenacious defense he loves for his teams to play. Minnesota is crashing the boards and causing teams fits.
But it’s not just on the defensive end. The Gophers are 23rd in the nation in assists per game, averaging nearly 17 a game. With the tremendous backcourt of Dre Hollins, Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman, the Gophers are moving the ball efficiently and unselfishly. The big men are a big factor as well, as the interior passing has been some of the best in recent memory.
The Gophers need to win a few tough road games in the Big Ten to prove they’re contenders for the Big Ten title, but they’re in the discussion. It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to have this debate when the calender turned over to the new year. Typically, we’re beginning a major collapse. It hasn’t been all cupcakes in the win column either. Their 13 wins now include victories over #18 Michigan State, #19 Memphis, and Stanford at home, as well as tough wins at USC and at Florida State. This is a team that historically has had difficulty closing out games, especially in the Big Ten. The 18-2 run on Monday was a break from normal tendencies, which is enough to make us sit up and consider whether they might be a contender.
The next two weeks will certainly be telling, (at #11 Illinois, at #5 Indiana and #2 Michigan at home with a game against Northwestern thrown in), but this is the best we’ve seen a Gophers team play since the Final Four run of 1997 (it happened). It’s time to start considering them a contender.