This Week Could Expose Gophers or Make Them Top-25

Photo: Gophers Athletics

The Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball team was underrated entering this season. Pitino’s jumbled squad of transfers and home-town boys have already proven that with a 6-0 start, even if most Americans wouldn’t recognize the universities they’ve defeated.

The Gophers have only played two teams inside the KenPom national top-135. They beat Loyola Marymount TWICE (#133) and Boston College in the B1G/ACC Challenge. BC is barely hanging on to their top-100 spot, at 97.

So while there’s no need for Richard Pitino to apologize for any of his team’s wins so far, the Minnesota Gophers still have a lot to prove. But they’ll get two opportunities to show they’re “for real” this week.

Tuesday, Dec. 15 – 6:00P: @ #6 Illinois (4-2)

The Fighting Illini were supposed to “be back” in 2020, touting two of the best players in the nation (both preseason All-B1G) in Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu, but the start of their season has been shakier than expected. The new AP and Coaches Polls will drop this afternoon but, as you can see above in Jeff Goodman’s rankings, the Illini will fall down both.

Missouri surprised everyone when they upset Illinois on Saturday, handing them their second loss of the season. The first came vs #2 Baylor, but wasn’t really held against them.

Still, the Illini barely snuck past Ohio University 77-75 on November 27, when the orange allowed future NBA point guard, Jason Preston go off on them for 31 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds. If you haven’t heard about Ohio’s Preston, I recommend you do some digging.

He’s the underdog story (Steph Curry style) of the 2020-21 college basketball season. Ohio should make the tourney this year and it wouldn’t shock me to see them make a run. shooting Preston into immediate stardom. But on Tuesday, the Illini play against another team with an NBA point guard, in the Gophers’ Marcus Carr.

So both teams enter Tuesday’s game with plenty to prove. The Minnesota Gophers need to prove they belong in conversations with the other NCAA Tournament teams in the Big Ten. Illinois needs to prove they’re not all preseason hype. If they lose, they will take a long tumble down (and possibly out of) the rankings next week.

Sunday, Dec. 20 – 7:30P: vs Saint Louis (4-0)

Saint Louis is trying to become the latest mid-major basketball program to turn itself into a powerhouse via the right coaching hire. They hired Travis Ford before the 2016 season, after he and Oklahoma State “mutually parted ways”, following a rough three-season stretch from 2013-2015. He made 5 NCAA tournaments in 8 seasons at OSU.

Here is the trajectory of Saint Louis basketball after hiring Ford.
**Lost in NCAA Rnd of 64 (info via Wikipedia)

Saint Louis is already knocking on top-25 rankings around the country. You can see them tied for #25 in Jeff Goodman’s rankings above and Seth Davis (The Athletic) has them ranked #19 overall.

The Billikens aren’t the only team that has Seth Davis’ eye, however. If the Minnesota Gophers can split these two games, they could climb into Davis’ rankings next week. If you didn’t know, Seth Davis’ top-25 rankings count toward the AP Poll.

Another Big Ten team, Minnesota, is also undefeated but has just one top-100 win, and that came in overtime at home against rapidly sinking Boston College. The Golden Gophers have a big week coming up with a game Tuesday at Illinois and a home game against Saint Louis on Sunday. If they earn a split, they very well could have a number next to their name next week.

Seth Davis – The Athletic (12/14)

Go 7-1 with one victory over a top-25 team and we could see the Gophers grace the top-25 polls next week…

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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