|Minnesota is pushing its way to the top of the Big Ten and back into the national spotlight. (startribune.com)|
You probably know Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith, but probably not for what he's done with the Gophers.
Smith won a national championship at Kentucky in 1997 and was one of the most successful coaches of the 90s and that's still what he's known for.
That's about to change.
The Gophers are ranked No. 9 in the country and have started the season 13-1. But the success is coming after a dark period in Minneapolis. This is the first season since 2009-10 that Minnesota has won its first Big Ten game of the year. The last time The Gophers reached the NCAA tournament was that 2010 season, but they haven't won a game in the tournament since 1997, the very year Smith was winning it all for UK. A Big Ten regular season championship would be the school's first since 1982.
It took time, but in Smith's sixth season it looks like he has his best squad yet. In the past, the Gophers have had strong starts, but have faded in conference play. This year looks to be different. The Gophers kicked off conference play with a 76-63 win over No. 18 Michigan State yesterday.
In a season where four Big Ten teams were expected to compete for the conference title (Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan and dark horse Illinois), Minnesota could make a emphatic comeback in a conference where there's not a lot of room to break through.
The Gophers are doing it with balanced scoring (Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams are both averaging more than 13 ppg while Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman are also in double figures) strong rebounding (more than 40 per game) and averaging more than 16 assists per game.
There is no singular superstar who's health and talent decides the team's fate. This team is well balanced and well coached, which are keys to winning in March.
While a win over Michigan State sends a message of dominance, the toughest stretch is yet to come. The Gophers will face Illinois, Indiana and Michigan in three straight games starting Jan. 9 with the first two coming on the road. If Minnesota is 2-1 or 3-0 in those games on Jan. 18, then the Gophers have proven again that this is no fluke.
It doesn't have to happen. Minnesota doesn't have to win the Big Ten or reach a Final Four this year (although Gopher fans won't oppose). A failure to reach these goals won't mean a failed season.
Because what Tubby Smith and this team have done so far is restore hope and excitement in Minneapolis. He's also sent a message that the Minnesota program is back and he has more than just his Kentucky resume to be remembered for.
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