It wasn’t the best of times at the end of last season and then during the early part of the off-season for several Big Ten programs. The reasons were a little different, but Minnesota and a couple of others not only finished near the bottom of the conference, but were not exactly trending in the right direction. Naturally, coaches like Richard Pitino tried to keep a positive outlook. With the season here and about ten games old for many teams, however, there’s a lot of reason for that in Pitino’s case.
Last season, the Golden Gophers were 8-23 overall and 2-16 in the Big Ten. The athletic director who hired Pitino, Norwood Teague, was long gone, and that never helps a coach even though he has a name with some cachet in college basketball. Then it got worse, from the sex tape fiasco involving Kevin Dorsey (who has since transferred) to Reggie Lynch getting arrested, though he was subsequently reinstated. Also, an audit showed that Pitino spent more than double his allowance for private jet travel since he was hired. While the private jet usage was approved by Teague, the news of it wasn’t something the program needed.
The program, simply put, was not in a good place at that time, and it figured to be a long off-season in Minneapolis. Perhaps it was, but it’s probably very much in the past now. The team has already surpassed last season’s win total and it’s not even mid-December.
Minnesota improved to 9-1 after running away from Georgia Southern 86-49 on Friday night. The Golden Gophers had already scored enough to win by an early point of the second half, as they scored 45 in the opening frame and held the Eagles to just 17 points in the second half. They held the Eagles to 30 percent shooting for the game and out-rebounded them 53-37, and held sophomore star Tookie Brown to just four points on 2-10 shooting. Brown’s running mate, Ike Smith, wasn’t much better as the two combined for 16 points but entered the night averaging 36 points between them.
Just a few days earlier, Minnesota barely got by NJIT at home, and that concerned the players and staff. They knew that one could easily have gone the other way. They knew the same effort wouldn’t suffice against a well-tested Georgia Southern team that should make some noise in the Sun Belt this year, though contention might be a year off.
The Golden Gophers have run this record up against an overall respectable schedule, though not one loaded with NCAA Tournament resume wins. They have wins against UT-Arlington, Arkansas and Vanderbilt, with the only loss coming at Florida State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The others they have turned away are not exactly a bunch of bottom feeders from bottom conferences, either, so they’re laying the groundwork to have a chance to make some noise in the Big Ten. They are the top defensive team in the Big Ten, even leading the way in blocked shots (led by conference leader Lynch).
The remainder of the non-conference schedule is more than manageable, with three more winnable home games. The Golden Gophers could start Big Ten play at 12-1, a good place to be from a confidence standpoint. None of this means they will contend in the Big Ten, which will be a gauntlet a usual and for this team starts with a home game against Michigan State before going on the road for four of the next five games. They do, however, shape up as a potential pleasant surprise. They’ve come a long way from the off-court activity that dominated the team news cycle late last season into the off-season.
Friday night had a very light slate with just ten Division I games on tap. Other games that will leap out are Creighton manhandling Longwood 113-58, Wake Forest getting past UNCG 78-75 and the growing pains continuing at Boston College as Hartford got a late three-pointer by Jason Dunne to cap off a 25-point night to beat the host Eagles 65-63.
In a move that isn’t surprising, Kansas suspended forward Carlton Bragg indefinitely following his arrest in the wee hours of the morning. The sophomore has been charged with one count of battery, as he is accused of pushing his girlfriend down a flight of stairs. He pleaded not guilty and has a court date of Dec. 27. Bragg, who has long been considered a big-time prospect, started games early this season but has seen his playing time drop of late.
St. John’s big man Yankuba Sima is transferring, the school announced on Friday. The 6’11” sophomore led the team in rebounding last season and started eight of the team’s first ten games this season, and said in a statement that he wants to “explore options” that will work better for his goals.
A big day of games has a little of everything – doubleheaders, rivalries and just plain good matchups.
- The first game of the day has Temple and DePaul meeting at American Airlines Arena in the Hoophall Miami Invitational (11:30 a.m.), which is followed by La Salle taking on Georgetown (2 p.m.)
- The big headline event is the Never Forget Tribute Classic at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. First, an old Big East matchup is on hand as Villanova takes on Notre Dame (noon), then Penn State takes on Pittsburgh in a neighboring state rivalry (2:30 p.m.)
- In a matchup of teams with good records that we’re still trying to figure out, Providence hosts UMass (noon)
- Memphis hosts former Conference USA foe UAB at 1 p.m.
- The first big rivalry game of the day is Marquette taking on Wisconsin at 2 p.m. at the Bradley Center.
- A few games that should be better than advertised are in the afternoon: Dayton hosts 7-1 East Tennessee State at 2 p.m., Illinois hosts 8-2 Central Michigan (3 p.m.) and Tennessee State takes their 7-1 record into Raleigh against NC State (4 p.m.)
- An old Big 12 matchup is on tap as Kansas hosts Nebraska (3:15 p.m.)
- The All-College Classic should be a good one as Oklahoma takes on Wichita State in Oklahoma City (4 p.m.)
- Two one-loss teams meet in what should be a good one as Butler hosts Cincinnati (4:30 p.m.)
- Duke heads west to take on UNLV at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas (5:15 p.m.)
- Utah has been under a lot of radars with their 6-1 start, and now they get a big test as they travel to Xavier (5:30 p.m.)
- Ohio State and UConn meet in a battle of teams looking to get a good boost (6 p.m.)
- A very good early evening matchup to watch is UNCW traveling to St. Bonaventure at 6 p.m.
- UCLA looks to continue their great start as they host Michigan (8 p.m.)
- Gonzaga gets a tough test at home from an Akron team that has played well and is a consistent contender in the MAC (8 p.m.)
- Another great rivalry game on tap is Old Dominion hosting VCU at 8 p.m., and a little later, New Mexico State hosts New Mexico (9:30 p.m.)
- The best of the late games is Colorado’s visit to BYU (10 p.m.)