Minnesota cracked the Associated Press' Top 25 for the first time since 2002 this week and is one of just nine unbeaten teams remaining in Division I.
However, Golden Gophers coach Tubby Smith refuses to get too excited just yet. He realizes his team has a long way to go, though it did pull off an impressive 70-64 upset of Louisville last Saturday at the Stadium Shootout at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
Smith didn't even call the win over Louisville the biggest during his two-year tenure at Minnesota, taking over a struggling program when he surprisingly left Kentucky after the 2006-07 season. Smith still considers the win over Ohio State on Senior Day last year as his best since landing in Minneapolis.
"We've gotten off to a pretty good start," Smith said. "We seem to be playing better defensively and have a better grasp of what needs to be done on that end of the floor. We've shown the ability to come back and pull some games out, which is always special. I'm happy to so far but we haven't even gotten into conference play yet."
Minnesota is 11-0 after beating Southeastern Louisiana 80-71 on Tuesday and is No. 23 in the AP poll. However, the Golden Gophers have played just the 234th-strongest schedule in the country thus far, according to the Pomeroy Rankings, which rate Minnesota at No. 50 in the nation, ahead of only Stanford and Illinois State among the nine unbeaten teams.
Furthermore, the Pomeroy Ratings have the Golden Gophers as the seventh-best team in the Big Ten behind Illinois (No. 9), Purdue (No. 10), Ohio State (No. 13), Northwestern (No. 30), Michigan (No. 39) and Michigan State (No. 41).
That isn't to say that Minnesota isn't enjoying getting some national recognition.
"It's exciting because it's the first time for everyone on the team to be playing for a ranked team in college," junior guard Lawrence Westbrook said. "Everybody looks at us as an opportunity to get a big win against a ranked team when they play us now. We know we're going to get everyone's best shot but that's great. I want everyone to be gunning for us because it's going to make us a better team in the long run."
Minnesota will soon find out just how good it is as it hosts Michigan State in the Big Ten opener next Wednesday after facing High Point on Sunday in their final non-conference game.
"It always gets a little easier when the program is in the second year under a coach," Smith said. "You have a holdover group of players who have had a season to learn a new system and now they really understand it. Then we have five new players who are getting tutoring in the system on and off the court by our veteran players. It's a good situation."
Smith drew high marks for leading Minnesota to a 20-14 record last season and a berth in the NIT after the Gophers suffered a 22-loss season the previous winter that cost Dan Monson his job as coach. This season has been a continuation of last seaosn's success.
"There are a lot of things that are really good," Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "I think the exciting part about it is we have a young basketball team. Our future is really positive. We've signed some kids in November, which will even help make this team even better in the long term. I think Tubby wasn't sure what he wasn't getting into and I think he's starting to say, 'You know what, I'm enjoying this journey.'"
Sophomore point guard Al Nolen has had a major impact as he is 43rd in the nation in percentage of steals (4.7), 48th in assist rate (34.7) and 69th in free throw rate (70.4) while posting a 114.1 offensive rating.
Junior forward Damian Johnson is 16th in percentage of blocks (11.2) and 46th in percentage of steals (4.7) to go with a 114.4 offensive rating. Westbrook, who is adjusting to coming off the bench after beginning the season as a starter, is 81st in percentage of possessions used (29.0), 96th in percentage of shots (30.4) but his offensive rating is 104.4
Freshmen forwards Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson combine with Johnson to give Minnesota one of the strongest interior defenses in the nation. Sampson is 14th in percentage of blocks (11.5) while Iverson is 25th (10.8). Iverson has a 119.5 offensive rating and Sampson's is 111.1
"Those two make our defense very efficient and Iverson has really brought a lot of energy to our team," Smith said. "He does all the little things on both ends of the floor, like diving for loose balls, and he is also very talented. We have a good blend of experienced kids and freshmen and it's worked out well to this point."
On The Other Hand...
On the opposite side of the Minnesota's big win in Glendale was that Louisville continued a so-so start with the loss. Though the Cardinals are 7-2 and are 18th in the Pomeroy Ratings, many had them pegged as a likely Final Four team, including coach Rick Pitino.
Pitino was so disappointed in the effort against Minnesota that he wrote this message on the grease board in the locker room after the game: "ILLUSIONS OF GRANDEUR."
"I haven't liked this team since the first day of practice in terms of execution," Pitino said. "We haven't beaten anybody yet."
Louisville, though, did have a tough trip to the Phoenix area for the matchup with Minnesota. The Cardinals beat Mississippi 77-68 two nights earlier in the Cincinnati then flew all night to Arizona only to find no busses at the airport to transport the team to the hotel at 6:30 a.m. Pitino, though, was quick to point out transportation problems were no excuse for his team not transporting the ball better against Minnesota.
"That's just problems, but it's no reason for not executing," he said. "The trip from hell didn't stop us from passing out of the post."
Louisville at least has three home non-conference games in which to straighten out before Big East play starts as the Cardinals play Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday, Nevada-Las Vegas on Wednesday and Kentucky on Jan. 4. Louisville's first conference game is at South Florida on Jan. 7.
Dreaming Big at Pitt
Another one of the nine remaining unbeaten teams is Pittsburgh, which is 12-0 after getting past Florida State 56-48 last Sunday. The Panthers are No. 3 in the Pomeroy Ratings.
While college basketball hasn't seen a perfect team since Indiana in 1975-76, Pitt is allowing itself to dream the seemingly impossible dream. The thought of the Panthers finishing the season with a zero in the loss column, though, is rather circumspect since it plays in the Big East, which has seven teams in the AP top 25 and 13 teams among the nation's top 100 in the Pomeroy Ratings.
Forward Sam Young, though, admits that he and fellow seniors Levance Fields and Tyrell Biggs allow themselves the idea of running the table.
"We've talked about being undefeated," Young told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "This is the best team we've been a part of. Coach [Jamie] Dixon said it's the best team he's ever had. We're talking about the possibility that we can be undefeated and continue this winning streak. If we keep growing as a team anything is possible. The sky is the limit for us. I'm really trying to stay humble, but it's hard not to look to the future with the team we have.
"[Dixon] told us that before the season, and he tells us before and after every game. We can do things where we can take him to the Promised Land. We love that. When you have a coach who has had so many great teams tell you that, that this is the best team, you feed off of that."
Pitt's strength of schedule, though, ranks just 117th, according to the Pomeroy Ratings. The Panthers open Big East play next Wednesday at Rutgers.
Home Away From Home
East Rutherford, N.J., may not necessarily be one of the hot spots of America but is it like Durham North for Duke. The Blue Devils improved to 18-1 all-time at East Rutherford last Saturday when they blitzed Xavier 82-64 at the Izod Center.
"It's like going to the best restaurant," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Duke has won five NCAA regionals in East Rutherford. Krzyzewski likes to schedule a non-conference game most every December at either East Rutherford or Madison Square Garden in New York because he feels it gives his team a chance to experience an NCAA-like atmosphere early in the season.
"I think it's good for college basketball in general, gives it a little pop," Krzyzewski said.
Duke (10-1) is No. 4 in the Pomeroy Ratings and looking more and more like a team primed to go deep in the NCAA tournament after getting knocked out in the second round by West Virginia last season and upended by Virginia Commonwealth in the first round in 2007.
"I think this year we have more experience to go with our depth," junior guard Jon Scheyer said. "That's a big thing for us, with guys like Dave McClure, Lance Thomas and Greg Paulus coming off the bench. Greg has started the last two years. Lance has started a couple years. They're not going to be afraid, going into the games."
The Blue Devils wrap up non-conference play at home against Loyola (Md.) next Wednesday then host Virginia Tech in their Atlantic Coast Conference opener on Jan. 4.
Braggin' Rights to Champaign
This season's Braggin' Rights games, won by Illinois 75-59 over Missouri on Tuesday night in St. Louis, was interesting on a number of fronts. Missouri laid an egg just a day after it entered the AP poll for the first time in almost five years while Illinois showed that is it a legitimate top 25 team.
"We're an energy basketball team and I didn't see the energy," said Missouri coach Mike Anderson, whose team has lost nine straight games to Illinois. "We were a full step behind. Blame me for that."
Missouri, No. 14 in the Pomeroy Ratings, has four more non-conference games before opening Big 12 play on Jan. 10 at Nebraska. Illinois doesn't have as much time before its next big test as it hosts Eastern Michigan on Sunday in a non-conference game then has a tough Big Ten opener on Tuesday night at Purdue.
"We have a long season ahead of us, but it's definitely a big stepping stone for us," Illinois point guard Chester Frazier said of the win over Missouri. "'It's a big confidence booster for our team. It should open a few eyes out there to the Illini."
Games to Watch
Five games to watch in the upcoming week, according to the Pomeroy Ratings with all times Eastern:
No. 7 West Virginia (9-2) at No. 13 Ohio State (9-0), Saturday, Dec. 27, 4 p.m., CBS
No. 1 Georgetown (9-1) vs. No. 6 Connecticut (10-0) at Hartford, Conn., Monday, Dec. 29, 7 p.m., ESPN2
No. 9 Illinois (11-1) at No. 10 Purdue (10-2), Tuesday, Dec. 30, 7 p.m., ESPN2
No. 59 South Carolina (9-1) at No. 8 Clemson (12-0), Tuesday, Dec. 30, 7 p.m., Fox Sports Net
No. 47 Utah (6-5) at No. 5 Gonzaga (8-3), Wednesday, Dec. 31, 8 p.m., CBS College Sports
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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